24 April 2010


Fed up with rip off hotels

A rant at the hotel industry and their standards.

I am fed up being ripped off with crap food, especially crap food that is overpriced and you take all evening to serve me.

Where do I start? Cereal loaded with sugar. Muesli is supposed to be healthy. So why only serve varieties with sugar in? This makes as much sense as automatically putting sugar in everyone's tea or coffee and makes no sense for anyone trying to eat healthily or on a low sugar diet. In 1997 I suggested this to Benedict's of Belfast and they got in muesli with no sugar. I stayed in that hotel in a contract for 7 months and when I returned for a random visit last year they were still serving it. Must have made sense I guess and maybe more people than me liked the sugar free muesli, you can even leave a bowl of sugar beside it for the sugarholics (add to taste).

Bacon. It's supposed to be reasonably crispy. A pile of bacon drowning in its own fat that looks like it has been steamed and has more fat on it than bacon just doesn't do it for me. This isn't just me, the other guests were complaining about it too. Why do you think it's acceptable to put out such inedible crap? Shall I call Gordon Ramsey up to tell it to you straight?

Coffee. It's supposed to be fresh and tasty to wake up guests in the morning. Usually however you have instant chemical coffeesoup in your room with a barely adequate amount of milk unless you are sad enough to be staying by yourself. Alternatively you could venture to the breakfast area where I'm sure it's been stewing since 6am. Why don't you do a deal with one of the semi-reasonable high street coffee chains who I am sure would welcome the expansion opportunity or at least have a cafetière available in the room so I can make it myself.

I also know that £5 bowl of soup probably cost you less than £1 for ingredients and 2 mins to heat up so unless your waiter earns £4 for 2 mins work (£120 an hour) I don't buy the rip off. I also don't get the £10 min for a main course either, nor the £3 for a pint, all of which I frequently decline in preference to an entire meal with food and drink, no hidden service charges AND a proper VAT receipt correctly itemised from a Wetherspoons pub with change from £8 (usually less). They can deliver decent food on a budget, why can't you? They also take 10 mins to serve me usually rather than the best part of an hour unlike hotel restaurants while I get bored waiting and wondering how much the hotel will charge me for the 'service'.

I had completely had it tonight when I thought I would try the restaurant. I had to ask especially for the menu. Clearly a tactic that you use so that when people sit down and ask for a menu, you've already 'got them'. Most normal (not hotel) restaurants have the decency to put a menu on public display so you can make your mind up first. Having thought it overpriced, I was just going to have a starter (the famous £5 soup) but then ventured to the bar to see what they had there only to be told they didn't serve food. Except the nuts I spotted and then had to ask if there were any other edible items they sold also not classified as food, such as crisps etc. I then popped out to the car for 5 mins then returned to the restaurant only to find it closed. No warning when I was there 5 mins earlier, no clearly indicated signs indicating their hours, nothing. However, I could get exactly the same food on the menu delivered as room service to my room. I was going to ask if having then had it delivered to my room I could bring it back to the bar, be sociable and annoy all the other hungry guests being told by barstaff that they didn't serve food.

So tonight as I was hungry and actually needed more to eat than nuts (even if the bar didn't classify them as food) I went to Tesco, bought long life milk, sugar free cereal, plates, cutlery, juice, bread, fresh fruit (not available in your restaurant, why?), coffee, cafetière (so I don't need to drink instant chemical soup) and a bottle opener for less than the price of two meals in your restaurant, thus saving me eating breakfast with you indefinitely and at least the next two evening meals. Saved a fortune and of course I can also eat whenever I like. Result. Healthy eating for a 1/3 the price of overpriced unhealthy food. I have also considered buying a microwave for £30 and putting it in my room so that I can enjoy a Tesco curry and rice for an amazing £1.50 rather than the £15 and long delay with it would take you to serve up pretty much the same thing. After 3 days, I'm already in profit (and I can eat my food in less than 10 minutes).

Look this isn't just a stereotypical stingy Scotsman story. There's a number of points here - one is that when I'm in a hotel I actually want to eat healthily and 'normal' food, not joints covered in unpronouncable incomprehensible French names trying to be pretentious. Nor do I need huge portions, starch, carbohydrates and overcooked vegetables. I actually want food that's reasonably close to what I would eat at home, portion size and with tasty fruit and vegetables. I also don't want to wonder why you charge 3x the price of Wetherspoons, your food is nothing special and by the way your beer is probably crap too. Serving 6 types of lager and no ale isn't much of a choice really. As someone in a hotel on business I also resent my week being whittled away waiting for a table, waiting for my order to be taken and waiting for my food to arrive. Once in a while is OK for a special occasion, but when it becomes a regular nightly event because I travel a lot, it eats in not only my time when I could be catching up on work or getting an early night but also when I might like to go for a walk and enjoy the local sights. Wetherspoons can take my order and serve me in 10 mins, why does a restaurant like to block a table out for over an hour with slow service the main cause?

Anyone else think the hotel industry needs a good kicking? As a starting point, if you want the lowest prices for a bed, try this remarkable Hotel search engine which I use very regularly and which makes finding hotels a lot easier.

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06 April 2010


UK General Election

Today Gordon Brown is predicted to call the general election.

Here's a few more predictions

In 2006 I said an uninspired Labour would feed into the hands of the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England. Within a year, the SNP was in government in Scotland and in 2010 the Tories are leading in the polls UK wide.

In 2007 I predicted the resignation of Tony Blair, the SNP winning the Scottish elections and the Tories winning the UK elections in 2010.

In 2008, I predicted on the BBC website that 2010 would see Labour lose and Gordon Brown off to a well paid job in the City and the SNP a good 10 points in front.

In 2010, we see the SNP a good 10 points in front, and of course the Tories in the lead UK wide.

The polls have been wrong before - hopefully the number crunchers will have taken 1992 into account - but the predictions are looking good so far. I'm not much of a fan of the Tories, including the lack of help in sorting out the red tape I got from my then MP Alistair Darling, but anything has to be better than another 5 years of Labour.


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09 March 2010


BBC fail - my correct name is not permitted

BBC Fail
BBC displays another example of the Scunthorpe problem. I am no longer allowed to use my name on the BBC site. See the screendump (click to enlarge) and also my previous experience with Microsoft on this issue in 2004.

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02 November 2009


Password and PIN problems

An article on the relative security and insecurity of websites and banks

Why is it that websites deem a 6 character all lower case password to be "very weak" when there's 306million+ possibilities. Yet a 4 digit PIN (9999 possibilities) is secure enough for banks?

The website one is almost 31,000 times more secure yet is deemed "weak". Surely a rule for websites that if the incorrect password is used a certain number of times the account is locked would be sufficient to make the weak password 31,000 times stronger than the bank's security.

We have to be practical about this. In reality, any rules around requiring a password to have upper and lower case letter and special characters such as $,% etc simply make it much more likely people will write the passwords down. Just because this makes it the person's problem rather than the website's is no excuse - the overall security of the account is the issue, including the likelyhood that the account will be broken into because the password was so complicated it, together with the dozons of other passwords from other sites, all had to be written down somewhere because it was too much to remember.

Can we please have simpler password rules for websites and some way of having one strong security mechanism which ties them all together?


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22 October 2009


Nokia N97 problems

I thought I would write this to document the ongoing problems I have with my Nokia N97. It seems from the conversation in the phone shop today that my problems are far from unique. Hopefully you can add your problems into the comments field of this blog and if enough people link to the article, tweet it etc it will feature as prominently in Google as some of the other pages on this blog and it might inspire Nokia to respond in some way, perhaps by way of a few overdue bugfixes for their so called flagship product. Anyway, here goes:

1. I have an old Nokia E61 and last year got a N95 on contract. The two worked flawlessly together for 18 months, I could synchronise calendar entries, notes, contacts flawlessly. With the N95 and the N97, despite them both being on the same timezone, I get random calendar entries moving forward by an hour on synchronisation, meaning that I have to go in and manually check them all. This is a totally unacceptable bug, fix it. I also notice that if I have a contact entry with no phone number (e.g. its just a name and address) then this entry gets randomly duplicated as well. Another bug that needs to be fixed.

2. There is no facility in the browser to sort bookmarks alphabetically. This is again basic functionality you would expect in a flagship product especially if you have a lot of bookmarks to manage

3. The sound on the N95 was great for a mobile phone. The sound on the N97 is pants by comparison. This is a retrograde step, not something you would expect for a flagship product.

4. The N95 was responsive and fast. The N97 is not. Particularly after it crashes and you have to pull out the battery to restart it because it won't power up. Then the phone decides to do something in the background (I think it is rebuilding the music database) and this takes about 10 minutes, during which time the phone is unusable. I demonstrated this without difficulty in the shop today.

5. When I flip open the screen I expect a hardware switch to be able to tell the software the screen is open without any issues, not have to wait 20 seconds for the software to switch the screen to horizontal mode.

6. Having Adobe reader installed as a trial version that expires sucks especially if you get a PDF you need to read. If you do want to waste the time and money paying to get a full version of this product (the same product that was completely free on the N95) then don't bother unless you have a free evening to waste as you are directed to the quickoffice.com site to make the purchase. This is about the suckiest site I have ever used in terms of usability. Every payment method failed with either a timeout or an incomplete screen when attempting to purchase using IE on a broadband connection with a laptop. They have no help email address or phone number, instead you have to register for a support account, wait for the account to be validated, then log your request via a long form that asks all sorts of irrelevant and pointless questions about your phone even though its the website that is at fault.

7. The N95 allowed you to browse home media via Wi-Fi and to download media across Wi-Fi easily, the flagship N97 removed this extremely good functionality and replaced it with nothing. Well maybe Ovi store, but the least said about that the better. Gone are the days when I could download a whole album to my phone from another room, now I have to find the connection wire and sit next to my PC to do it.

8. After connecting my phone to my PC to download music, I then disconnect the data connection cable. Since the same connection is used to charge the phone from the mains, the phone gives me the stupid message "unplug charger from power supply to save energy". Except I wasn't bothered about charging the phone, I was transferring music, and the "charger" is my PC which I am still using. Stupid message.

9. Rather unhelpfully the useful facility to search email messages on the N95 is no longer present on the N97. The search messages function only searches text messages, not email messages. Fail.

10. I am using 40% of the 32Gb internal memory to store MP3s. Since I went from using 1% the phone goes slow, especially after a crash. If you give people 32Gb of memory, expect them to use it and write apps that can handle this rather than apps that run at a snails pace.

11. The compass sucks. Waving my phone around in the air for 10 minutes to get a pseudo lock for the compass makes me look stupid and should not be necessary.

12. The maps suck as well. The location finder is nothing like as fast and as accurate as it was on the N95 and on several occasions has been a few hundred metres out. Combined with the sucky compass, this wastes my time - I emerge from a London underground station and want to know which street I am on and which way I am facing not 10 minutes later after waving the phone around like a magic wand only to get an approximate position. When I'm using the phone for GPS I don't want it automatically turning off when the maps are updating thanks, I might be using it to navigate with and shouldn't need to keep waking the phone up.

13. Under "My Videos" there is a video clip promoting the E90. I don't care about the E90, I want to delete the video clip. There is no obvious delete in an obvious place.

14. The captured image count only seems to update after the phone is powered off. It doesn't update in real time. This is laughable.

15. My downloads area says it has 21 items but when I open it, I get 21 randomly twinkling broken image icons. There's no way to delete these. You get a general system error if your try. Here's a tip for your programming team:
if have_just_shown_randomly_twinkling_broken_image_icon then
remove icon()
How hard was that? You spent how many millions on R&D for this device?

16. Since the collective brains of the universe still haven't figured out how to link music files (ie you get the same piece of music as part of a greatest hits but also as part of the original album and it is on your phone twice rather than as one linked item) we have the problem of duplicate tracks. To conserve memory and also as part of a general tidy up and inconsistent naming I moved the tracks into consistently named folders. However, on doing this the "All" bookmark to the previous track still hangs around, so you if you rename "Beatles" to "The Beatles", there is still an artist reference to "Beatles" and it it there is still a reference to "All" which now points to nothing. You can't delete the empty references, if you do there is an error "File is corrupted: Operation cancelled". Here's some more code for your programmers.
if artist->all.bookmark()==null then delete(artist->all.bookmark)
how many millions did you spend developing this product?

17. You still haven't fixed the stupid email bug.

18. The usability of the email client is pants. Here is an example. I have my email open in list mode and I want to read a message, so I double click on it.
1. Double click on message, expecting message to be shown (one action). What actually happens is:

Phone wonders why I might have pressed double click. Who knows maybe I just wanted to wake the phone up. Maybe I pressed double click for some other reason than opening the mail. So it asks me "E-mail not retrieved yet. Retrieve now?" There is no retrieve later option. Of course I want it retrieved now, I'm trying to read the message you stupid phone. So you click yes, then it connects to your mailbox. Then it considers that the most important thing on connection is to refresh your mailbox which may take a while. Perhaps in a future release the refresh might take place as a background task? Then note that message is empty, due to bug noted in point 17. So you have to delicately click on the HTML attachment icon, not easy on a moving train. Then rather than getting the attachment you get another screen saying "Attachment.HTML" which you then have to click on to open it. If this is an HTML mail with images, it prompts you if you want to connect to the server even though you are already online. You get this request multiple times, even if you say no. However sometimes saying no closes the message down so you see nothing, not even the text content the phone has already downloaded. All in all a usability fail. Do you think Apple would design it this way? Do you even have to think about the answer?

19. Application on the homepage which require a connection, e.g. the weather, randomly don't work. Even if you go to the application itself and download the content, the homepage view just sits there saying "content loading" indefinitely.

20. I would like to delete all the delivery reports for messages that have been delivered. No such option exists, it's an all or nothing affair. If you can individually delete a text message, you should be able to individually delete its delivery report. Seems like basic usability to me?

21. Remember how search messages only searched text messages? Well the emails are in fact stored in an area called messaging, just so that when you fire up the search messages thing you think it might search the emails because they are in the messaging area. Anyway, I digress. I set up my "messaging" area to be on the internal memory, there's more room there. Randomly however it resets to the phone memory meaning that I lose all sight of my email and text messages. Once when I set it back again to the internal memory, I found they had all been wiped. Whilst the emails were just a copy of what was on the Internet, there was no copy of all the text messages. I'm not backing up the phone twice a day and I don't expect this to happen. Stop it.

22. I'd like to turn off the stupid nanny messages such as "Exiting will disconnect the active mailbox connection. Exit anyway?" Yes, you fool, that's why I just pressed the exit button.

23. When I press the off button, I expect the phone to turn off. If an application has hung then too bad. Off means off. Consider the functionality for a second of the off button, it means the user is wanting to turn off the phone. It doesn't mean that they want the phone to remain on because an application has hung. This basic introduction to the functionality of the off button should be enough for a company of Nokia's size to code it up properly that the off button does in fact turn off the phone when the off button is pressed. Otherwise I will resort to removing the battery, that powers off the phone at the same speed the off button on the phone should work at and does in fact work even if an application has hung (unlike the off button). Take a tip from the old "reset" button on an Apple II. It reset the computer no matter what state it was in. That's what I want in an off button.

24. You can't independently put the browser in silent mode to stop those incredibly annoying websites that auto-play music when you land on them, yet still have the audio on so you can hear calls and text messages arriving. There is no audio control for the browser. A mute function would be expected in a flagship product. Try reusing the code from the media player.

25. When you open the contacts address book it's called "contacts" but when you go to search it, it's now called "people" rather than "contacts".

26. There is a grid view and list view for most things, but only a list view for settings. Why?

27. The delay on the camera is completely unacceptable. See earlier points about the phone being slow. There is a couple of seconds delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken which makes action shots almost impossible. Are the electrons for operating on the camera going on a detour via the moon when this happens? Seemingly a light beam could bounce off the moon quicker than it takes the message to travel the 6cm or so from the shutter button to the camera. Totally unacceptable. If you can get the phone to respond instantly there's an incoming call, you can make the other applications work the same way. Deal with it.

28. If you are going to write a phone with such sluggish performance try giving better feedback to the user, such as greying off a button they have pressed to give some feedback rather than just vibrating the phone and making it look like its hung.

29. You can configure your alarm on a N97 to go off on days you specify. I have mine on a Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri as I get up at 4am on a Monday but not on the other days. However, the same flexibility is not available to calendar reminders. So I can have an alarm for 6:30 on a Tuesday, but I can't have a calendar entry for a Tue-Fri that says "leave to get train". I can't even have it on workdays only. This is pants. Yet another example of useful functionality in one part of the phone that isn't reused everywhere it could be useful.

30. The previous and next buttons on the calendar and emails are pretty useless and work randomly. The sensitive area for these isn't under the icons as you might expect but somewhat near them.

31. When I open up the music player and select "All songs" in music library it says "7 days 11 hours" of music. When I go into playlists and select All songs it says there's only 1 day. Even if I open up the bookmark and add "all songs" to it, it still says 1 day. Huh?

32. In the music player, the term "song" and "music" is used randomly interchangeably. Guys, just call it music will ya? you don't know if it's a song or not because you have no idea how many tracks are instrumentals.

33. I would like the facility to show my contacts in order of most recently used, rather than having to favourite and unfavourite them. Besides the favouriting function is also buggy as they favourites get randomly lost when synchronising with another phone.

34. I still can't understand why there is such a conceptual difficulty between text messaging and emails and translating between the two. If I get an email I might like to forward it by text. If I get a text, I might like to forward it as an email. Why is this apparently impossible? How about a useful "select all text" option on the options menu rather than the hopelessly erratic slide and copy and context sensitive copy function that appears of its own free will?

36. The space bar belongs in the MIDDLE of the keyboard. See your PC/Laptop for a clue.

37. Why does the help for the calendar describe a function to view lunar data, but this function does not exist?

38. Why is there no facility to colour code entries in the calendar? How about a facility to have daily reminders auto delete themselves once the day has passed (user configurable)

39. Why does my phone light go out after 10 seconds when the display light out feature is set to a minute? I'd like a setting for the display to be permanently on, where is it?

40. Why is it that when I open the clock application it has nice rounded figures, but when the same digital clock appears on the homepage it looks like a bad digital LED display from the 1970's?

Any others anyone?

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10 October 2009


Web2.0, a definition

People ask me what Web2.0 is. This is my explanation, hope you find it useful. It's hopefully a bit more readable than the definition on wikipedia. I also follow this with some information about Web3.0.

You may have heard the term Web2.0, a term first used in 2004. If you ask an expert what it means you'll probably get differing answers depending on who you ask because there is no real clear definition of it. So this is my one.

There are two main feature of Web2.0 which distinguish it from sites that aren't Web2.0.

  1. Web2.0 is about people creating their own content for publishing online

  2. it is also about the supporting technology for this content

It is easier to explain Web2.0 if you set it in context of what there was previously.

In the early days of the web, despite it originally being conceived as a document sharing and editing environment, the editing part rarely happened. Early sites were generally about a company, organisation or individual producing content, publishing it on their website and then people reading that content or transacting with it, e.g. reading the news on-line or buying a book.

However, following the emergence of blogs it became easier for larger number of people to author their own content and have others comment on it, just as you can do here. Similarly, Amazon allowed others to post their own reviews. This activity, together with the very long standing Internet tradition of news groups, forums, bulletin boards and so on going back to the 1970's - all these came together to form the early implementation what we now call Web2.0.

When you consider that most people think of Web2.0 as twitter, facebook and other similar sites they think of it as a social platform which allows them to publish their own content easily and share it with their friends. However, this facility has been around on-line for almost 30 years. In 1979 with the invention of usenet groups it was possible to easily share content online and from my own personal experience I used to run a mailing list called Gaelic-L that was founded in 1989 and allowed people with similar interests to share content with their online connections even way back then. In 1990 I also proposed an early browser with user generated content and personalised news, based on the fact that many people were by that time doing much of that anyway.

Web2.0 is therefore more than just being able to publish content and share it with your friends, this has been possible for decades, it's about the types of technology that make it happen as well and how these combine together. In the early days if I wrote an article in a newsgroup, people might reply to it. With Web2.0 you can not only reply to it but you might be able to vote on it and even edit the original, this is how wikipedia works - people collaborate together using a wiki as a tool for sharing information. The articles in a wiki are often authored by several people rather than just one. Similarly it wasn't just that blogs made it easy for people to write their own content, the platforms they used to write their blogs held and published the content in a structured way and this allowed the content to be easily reused in other contexts using a technology called RSS (Really Simple Syndication). What this means is that you didn't have to go to the blog to read the post, you could pick up the notifications of new posts via an RSS reader or another website entirely. Sites can also publish a programming interface called an API which can support the same functionality as RSS and more besides. RSS feeds are particularly useful at following new content - e.g. new news article, new blog posts or more specialised searches such as new jobs matching your requirements on a job board. API calls are better for more generalised searches e.g. "how many twitter users are based in Edinburgh" or "Who posted the first tweet about Michael Jackson's death" or "give me the data to plot a graph of the number of times President Obama's Nobel prize was mentioned in the hours after the announcement was made", etc.

As an example of RSS in action, my posts here automatically feed out to twitter and friendfeed. My friendfeed is then published on my facebook pages. This sharing of data across many sites and applications and interpreting the content in different ways is one of the key distinguishing features of web2.0 over web1.0. This is quite a long post, too long for the 140 character limit for twitter, but the connection between my blog and twitter takes care of that. Similarly when I post something new to the photo sharing platform Flickr, it also appears via a link on Twitter even though twitter doesn't directly support photos - the sites all interact with the same content but in different ways.

Taking this example of data sharing further you can combine (mash) information from different sites to produce something new, this is called a mashup. An example might be pulling in data from Google maps, geotagged photos from Flickr, public rights of way information from the government or council and accommodation information and reviews from a hotel booking site. Combining this information together using the publicly available data would allow you to show walks overlaid on a map together with examples of the views you could expect to see along the way and recommended places to stay en-route.

So Web2.0 is about people creating content (blogs, photos, statuses) together with the supporting technology (facebook, wikis, twitter) allowing this content to be shared, connected and reused in many different ways. It isn't really about endless "beta", rounded graphics, pastel shades and large fonts although these are incidental elements of the Web2.0 scene.

Just as there's no single definition of Web2.0, there is even less clarity about what might come next for Web3.0. The leading consensus is this will be about the semantic web. This represents a bigger challenge than web2.0 because it is about taking the largely unstructured and often ambiguous content on the web and tagging it in ways that allow it to be more clearly defined and reused. For instance if I type London Bridge into Google, there is no way at present to distinguish if I meant the actual bridge itself, the railway station with the same name, the underground station with the same name, the hospital with the same name or the bridge that got shipped to Arizona. Another example is differentiating text with a particular meaning from the same text that occurs by coincidence - e.g. a Digital Will is a type of Will (a legal document for when someone dies) that covers digital assets such as your emails, photos, MP3s, on-line contacts, etc. However, if you search for this term in Google you get some references to both the legal document but also the same phrase occurring in entirely different contexts such as "Digital will overtake print" and "Western Digital will move to Irvine". The semantic web will not only help to classify how words are used from a linguistic point of view but it will also allow content to be queried as data - for instance on a restaurant website you could mark-up your opening hours and this would allow people to search using a semantic search engine for restaurants open at a particular time of day. The biggest challenges faced by Web3.0 are in agreeing the common vocabularies and then deploying them effectively across the billions of web pages that already exist.

As you can see, although Google is quite good at being able to find pages containing certain terms it is currently very poor at making sense of the data in a structured way. This is because without the data being marked up in a semantic way (either through the use of markup directly or by attempting to deduce the context), it is an exceptionally difficult task for a search engine to provide this functionality. Web3.0 will make this job a lot easier but the means by which Web3.0 will emerge is still unclear. What we do know though it that it should make searching for information a lot more powerful and specific. Google is also exceptionally poor at searching sites that already have structure - for instance if I wanted to find a hotel room for tonight I would use an accommodation search engine and Google would find me the site which listed the accommodation rather than the accommodation itself. Google can't tell me what rooms are available tonight but it can point me towards sites that are likely to have this information. This will all change with Web3.0 and the use of intermediary sites will significantly decline as the information they hold begins to open up to more generalised search engines.

I hope this has been helpful. If anyone is looking for a Web2.0 or Web3.0 specialist, please get in touch via craig@siliconglen.com, twitter, facebook or linkedin.

I do Internet things, manage large websites, play around with language, campaign for good causes, try to explain things and have fun singing along the way (not all at the same time!).

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08 June 2009


Scotland is the place

My recent interview with Scotland is the Place, Scottish government website.

Hope you like it, the space was a bit limited. There's so much more I'd like to say.


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23 May 2009


localpages.ie, buggy, broken and not interested in feedback

Dear localpages.ie

I just encountered the following error when browsing your site, did you test it or have you outsourced this to customers? Never mind, I did try and send it to you so that you could fix it but as you've intentionally left out any means of contacting you on your website I was unable to do so. Since I would like the problem fixed and since I would like to tell you your site is broken so that you can fix it and I might enjoy using your site at some point in the future, I think the only way of telling you about your broken site is to post the details here in the hope that you find them on a web search.

If you weren't so rude and difficult and made it impossible for people to reach you I would have sent this in an email instead.

Cutting yourself off from customers is rarely a good tactic. Other websites take note.


p.s. Good programmers trap their errors.

Server Error in '/' Application.
DataBinding: 'System.Data.DataRowView' does not contain a property with the name 'glat'.
Description: An unhandled exception occurred during the execution of the current web request. Please review the stack trace for more information about the error and where it originated in the code.

Exception Details: System.Web.HttpException: DataBinding: 'System.Data.DataRowView' does not contain a property with the name 'glat'.

Source Error:

Line 29:
Line 30:
Line 31: point = new GLatLng(<%#Eval("glat")%>0, <%#Eval("glong")%>0);
Line 32: content = "<%#Eval("name").ToString() %>
<%#Eval("category").ToString() %>
<%# Eval("phone").ToString()%>";
Line 33: map.addOverlay(createMarker(point, 87, content));

Source File: c:\domains\localpages.ie\wwwroot\ajax\businessByCounty.aspx Line: 31

Stack Trace:

[HttpException (0x80004005): DataBinding: 'System.Data.DataRowView' does not contain a property with the name 'glat'.]
System.Web.UI.DataBinder.GetPropertyValue(Object container, String propName) +197
System.Web.UI.DataBinder.Eval(Object container, String[] expressionParts) +79
System.Web.UI.DataBinder.Eval(Object container, String expression) +107
System.Web.UI.TemplateControl.Eval(String expression) +120
ASP.ajax_businessbycounty_aspx.__DataBind__control7(Object sender, EventArgs e) in c:\domains\localpages.ie\wwwroot\ajax\businessByCounty.aspx:31
System.Web.UI.Control.OnDataBinding(EventArgs e) +99
System.Web.UI.Control.DataBind(Boolean raiseOnDataBinding) +206
System.Web.UI.Control.DataBind() +12
System.Web.UI.Control.DataBindChildren() +204
System.Web.UI.Control.DataBind(Boolean raiseOnDataBinding) +216
System.Web.UI.Control.DataBind() +12
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System.Web.UI.WebControls.Repeater.CreateControlHierarchy(Boolean useDataSource) +454
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System.Web.UI.Control.PreRenderRecursiveInternal() +170
System.Web.UI.Page.ProcessRequestMain(Boolean includeStagesBeforeAsyncPoint, Boolean includeStagesAfterAsyncPoint) +2041

Version Information: Microsoft .NET Framework Version:2.0.50727.1433; ASP.NET Version:2.0.50727.1433


02 March 2009


The Fred Goodwin pension problem

OK, so the Government and most sane people reckon that Fred's £16m pension reward for the biggest failure in UK corporate history is unjustifiable. I would agree it's an outrageous reward for the biggest fail ever in UK corporate history, however if it's in his contract what can be done?

1. First of all the government should realise that by trying to weasel around contract law and pension law by claiming back his legal entitlement, it opens the floodgates for all those hard-done-by benefit claimants that really need the government's support and are all too often eliminated from the basic money they need by government red tape. I know, I've had the chancellor of the exchequer tell me so personally (he used to be my MP). The government all to regularly hides behind legislation that results in the needy being denied money because of red tape (e.g. form says "please return this form within a month otherwise your claim may be delayed" without informing the claimant that the underlying legislation requires the form to be returned within a month otherwise the claim will be invalid and so on). If the government can twist and bend the legislation to get back some of Sir Fred's pension then it should certainly have a thought for the hard done by citizens of this country, struggling in a recession on a lot less than Fred's feather bed nest egg and who the government is all to happy to exclude from a basic minimum entitlement, despite paying national insurance etc. If the government can bend the rules to rake in money, it can surely bend the rules to pay it out to those who need it most.

2. If the government is adopting the new found stance of ensuring that failure isn't rewarded and that people don't want away from failure with large fat-cat salaries then we really need to question what example MPs are going to set. After all, Gordon Brown has presided over the biggest economic failure this side of the great depression yet in 2 years will walk away from that failure with a well paid job in the city and a pension that even Sir Fred Goodwin would enjoy. Surely if bankers are to be penalised for failure, the same rule should apply to the politicians which allowed the bankers to be so reckless in the first place. The buck stops with government. I'm sure the politicians that preside over failure would be a lot less keen on calling for Fred to pay back some of his pot if the same politicians were having their pension pot culled by the same percentage and for exactly the same reasons.

That's what I don't like about Labour. One rule for them and another one for everyone else.

Shoe on the other foot, Gordon Brown?

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22 February 2009


Aer Lingus cheaper than Ryanair

How Aer Lingus is cheaper than Ryanair. This'll annoy Michael O'Leary.

This is my weekly flight, so these are real figures based on looking at the relative websites today and booking my usual route with my usual baggage allowance and my usual credit card. I have excluded seat booking costs from this as I don't need to choose my seat in advance. Both airlines of course are guilty for advertising headline air fares without including all the mandatory charges (including tax and any booking fees).

Cost Aer Lingus = £109.75. Cost Ryanair = £194.20
Aer Lingus markup over flight cost = 214%
Ryan air markup over flight cost = 285%

Ryan Air are not only more expensive for my journey option but there's no loyalty scheme and I would have to queue at the airport to pay the excess baggage fee.

Booking parameters:

Route Edinburgh - Dublin on 02 March 2009 (need to fly from Edinburgh as it's an early start)
Dublin - Edinburgh/Glasgow on March 06 March 2009 (can fly back to either Glasgow or Edinburgh, doesn't matter to me).
Flying with 17Kg of hold bags
Compared on Sunday afternoon, 22nd Feb 2009

Aer Lingus Edinburgh-Dublin-Edinburgh

Flight £19.99 + £74.99 = £94.98

Including taxes and charges (except the processing charge) = £141.75

Handling charge = £8
Total to fly = £149.75
Bag charge £20
Total to pay = £169.75

cost for mandatory extras on top of the flight cost = ((169.75-94.98)/94.98)*100 =78%

Aer Lingus Edinburgh-Dublin-Glasgow

Flight £19.99 + £14.99 = £34.98

Including taxes and charges (except the processing charge) = £81.75

Handling charge = £8

Total to fly = £89.75
Bag charge = £20

Total to pay = £109.75

costs for Mandatory Extras on top of the flight cost = ((109.75-34.98)/34.98)*100 = 214%

Ryanair Edinburgh-Dublin-Edinburgh

Flight £0.49+£49.99= £50.48

Including taxes and charges = £96.20

Add bag handling = £28.50

Add Mastercard fee £9.50

Add excess bag costs 2Kg (over) * £15 per kilo * 2 (per flight) = £60

Total Ryanair costs = £96.20 + £28.50 + £9.50 + £60 = £194.20

Even without the £60 extra bag charge, this is £134.20

The costs of the flight were £50.48.

Cost for mandatory extras = 166% extra on top of the flight costs.
Plus the bag charge its 285%

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01 February 2009


Banking ignorance

I liked this quote from the recent Davos conference:

One top money market manager said: "If you believe that the world economy will turn the corner at the end of this year, or in [the first quarter] of 2010, I tell you we have not turned the corner, we can't see the corner, we don't even know where the corner is."

Once again, as I have said repeatedly on this blog bankers seem to be completely out of touch with customer service, a vision of improving the quality of their products and are constantly engaged in an endless cycle of making as much money as possible and no consequences for either customer service or indeed the global recession their greed has now caused. The above is simply another statement of their ignorance of the real world. Put the bankers into an environment where it's about more than just making as much money in a risky a fashion as possible and it's into headless chicken mode.

Still, one thing appears clear - the above quote does at least indicate that in the last year months they have learnt something about honesty.

Top tip for banks: Now is the time that you need to start thinking out of the box and investing in startups that have a solid business model which works in a recession. That's where you'll get the great growth rates, not in buying other banks laden with sub-prime debt (Royal Bank of Scotland etc take note)


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07 January 2009


Richard Dawkin's letter to his ten-year-old daughter about belief

The wider this letter is distributed, the better.

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists – the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe – often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called ‘tradition’, ‘authority’, and ‘revelation’.

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about 50 children. These children were invited because they’d been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by ‘tradition’. Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like, ‘We Hindus believe so and so.’ ‘We Muslims believe such and such.’ ‘We Christians believe something else.’ Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn’t all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite proper, and he didn’t even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn’t the point I want to make. I simply want to ask where their beliefs came from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over any number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptized into the Church of England, but this is only one of many branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other often go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily into Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about her much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the ‘Queen of Heaven’. The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not a very old one. The Bible says nothing about how or when she died; in fact the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’s time. At first it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the Pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are old men with beards called Ayatollahs. Lots of young Muslims are prepared to commit murder, purely because the Ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950 the Pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The Pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that Pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the Pope, you should believe everything he said, any more than you believe everything that lots of other people say. The present Pope has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow his authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like ‘authority’. But actually it is much better than authority because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called ‘revelation’. If you had asked the Pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been ‘revealed’ to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling ‘revelation’. It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’.
But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish are built to be good at surviving in fresh water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of … other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters, we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ‘swim’ through a ‘sea of people’. Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English but your friend speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘swim about’ in your own separate ‘people sea’. Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more truer than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at ‘swimming about in their people sea’, children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if its completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever.
Could this be what happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers, Mormons or Holy Rollers, and all are utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and someone speaks German.

Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in the Catholic Republic but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,


RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; reader in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University; fellow of New College. He began his research career in the 1960s as a research student with Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nico Tinbergen, and ever since then, his work has largely been concerned with the evolution of behaviour. Since 1976, when his first book, The Selfish Gene, encapsulated both the substance and the spirit of what is now called the socio-biological revolution, he has become widely known, both for the originality of his ideas and for the clarity and elegance with which he expounds them. A subsequent book, The Extended Phenotype, and a number of television programs, have extended the notion of the gene as the unit of selection, and have applied it to biological examples as various as the relationship between hosts and parasites and the evolution of cooperation. His following book, The Blind Watchmaker, is widely read, widely quoted, and one of the truly influential intellectual works of our time. He is also author of the recently published River Out of Eden.


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11 December 2008


Web accessibility guidelines updated - WCAG 2.0 comes into force

The de facto standard for web accessibility was updated for the first time since 1999 today. Version two of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG 2.0, has been published following several years of development and debate.

One wonders when all the website owners who didn't think WCAG 1.0 applied to them or pretended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (affected websites from 1999) didn't apply to them either might start paying attention.


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09 November 2008


Barack Obama and Arnie's land of opportunity

I was pleased to read that Barack Obama is to be America's first black president (although as someone half white he is technically as much white as black). Nonetheless this is a huge leap forward in terms of equal rights. In his own words

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

However, one barrier remains. America still requires the President to have been born in the US. Only a land of equal opportunity if you happen to have been born there. Factors such as skin colour which is something your are born with and have no control over should not be a barrier to becoming President. Neither for the same reason should be the place of your birth, it should be up to the people of America to decide whether a candidate and US citizen is fit to lead them and not some rule which says no After all, he's already leading 12% of Americans.

I'm glad to say that some in America are taking this discrimination seriously and perhaps Arnie is the one person of charisma and ability who can lead a campaign with as much emphasis on the land of opportunity as Barack Obama, and certainly a lot more stylish than boring John McCain.

Why do countries insist on state sponsored discrimination?

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07 November 2008


Gordon Ramsay, give the restaurant business a kick in the (expletive deleted)

I have watched your TV programme where you go into an individual restaurant and go through them like a dose of salts and get them sorted out. How about doing us frequent diners a favour and getting the whole industry to clean up its act.

I go to Tesco and get a milkshake for £1
I go to Boots and get a lunch for £2.99
I go to a pub and get a decent meal for £10 including drinks.

Rarely do any of the above refuse to accept credit cards.
Rarely do any of the above expect a tip, especially for shoddy service.
Rarely do any of the above distort their prices with hidden charges.
Rarely do any of the above fail to generate a VAT receipt, legally compliant and showing the VAT paid.

Yet go into a restaurant (not a pub or in a hotel), pay £20 upwards for a meal and invariably you get a scribble for a bill, no itemised VAT and often a mandatory service charge too. Together the 10% mandatory charge and the inability to claim back VAT adds almost 30% to the expected price of the food. What other business has a service charge which is optional to charge but mandatory to pay? Why does 1 person dining get charged for service anyway? Why are pubs clear with their pricing and billing but restaurants are not?

I have no objection to tipping, but a mandatory service charge just distorts the price of the food.

I call on you to ban this 30% surcharge on food and get restaurants to issue correct bills (with the VAT total separately itemised) and to stop this nonsense of mandatory service charges for 1 person dining, indeed I would welcome them being banned for tables of 4 or less. There's no need for it and it simply annoys and confuses customers and puts them off. The bill is the last thing the restaurant serves, don't let the parting taste be a bad one.

Yours in hope
Craig (a fellow Scot working in Central London)

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Black Lion, 123 Bayswater Road, Bayswater W2 3JH

Visited here on 5th November to see if their food might be of interest for a future visit. Unfortunately as I was reading the menu the rude waiter demanded to collect all the menus in so I never got to make my mind up if the food would be worth returning for. In that event, I won't be returning and will likely go somewhere with better service.

Beer range limited, food range also appeared to be limited (from what I was permitted to see)

Avoid. Well worth the lowly 2/5 rating in Fancy a pint

To all pubs and restaurant: Please don't take menus away, customers might actually want to read them. They aren't a state secret.

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01 November 2008


DVD and Cinema features I hate

I loved this comment from Clarke Ching's blog on "Things I would do if I were president of the world". This one comes in at #2.

I'd recall every single DVD player ever sold and get the manufacturers to add a "skip the shite" button which takes you straight past all the unwanted adverts, the insults and accusations that you may be a thief, and any sort of fancy, self-indulgent DVD-designer stuff. I buy the DVD to watch the movie or TV show ... not to be told I'm a thief. I'd also force movie theatres to put up a 10 second message which says, "Hey, you paid to watch this movie, so you're probably not a thief! Thanks! We appreciate your business and hope you enjoy this movie".

See also DVD forced advertising hell.

The "don't be a pirate" clips at the start of DVDs really did themselves proud when they warned me of the risks of watching a pirate DVD that might have been taped in a cinema and could have people standing up and getting in the way in the movie. Well done guys, you've just advertised a really good reason why I shouldn't go and see movies at all.

I would add another rule. I would require every entertainment outlet such as cinemas that is paranoid that you must only eat THEIR food in the cinema that in return the cinema is required to provide a wider range of food such that if you have to eat particular foods for dietary or religious reasons that you can actually either bring your own food or eat healthy food bought in the cinema. Currently the only options at the cinema seem to be "eat popcorn", "drink this unhealthy juice with lots of sugar in it", "eat these bags of sweets by the sackload", "have a hot dog (meat eaters only)" or "go hungry".

Pubs woke up to the food revolution about 30 years ago. When are cinemas going to catch up?




25 October 2008


Royal Bank of Scotland incompetence

I have always been a bit surprised by the banking industry. It must be that there is a special set of skills you can only get when working for banking that is completely unavailable anywhere else. The vast majority of banks (when they used to hire people) only took on people with previous banking experience. You might be the best web project manager going, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. You might have all the relevant qualifications, but if you haven't worked for a bank, they won't interview you. You might even have extensive payments, e-commerce experience and been security vetted, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. Although I have worked in financial services, retail, government and a wide range of sectors, banking is unique in that they require previous experience and will wait forever for the right person and pay over the odds for them rather than take someone who is capable of doing the job. Even government has realised that just employing government people to top jobs is a loser and is keen to recruit from outside. Not so the closed and incestuous world of banking which being so far shoved it own backside is now up the proverbial creek without a paddle and in the biggest mess for nearly a century. Led of course by people who are lifelong bankers, rather than well rounded individuals with a breadth of experience.

I turn now to the fiasco which is Royal Bank Digital Banking which has been the biggest disaster of a service imaginable ever since it first launched, failing of course to casually ignore the bank’s obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to provide an accessible service for many years.

7 years after the likes of Egg and Intelligent Finance implemented online secure messaging, Royal Bank (they like to claim they are a leader) still doesn't have it. The "alternative" is a long phone call, possibly at expensive rates overseas from a mobile. Not very much of an "online" service then.

They also used to have a very useful financial planner application online. This service was withdrawn.

Recently, and completely unannounced, they made some changes to online banking such that even amending a payment to myself requires a card reader and a card with PIN. Being a business banking customer, my account had no card as all my transactions are online. I write a cheque about once a month and since it's posted, there is no requirement for a card, nor does my account come with one. So in order to do my transactions online I had to have a special online-only card issued. I also need a PIN and a card reader and I have to pack the card and reader as additional extras when I travel just so that I can pay wages into my own account. The alternative (having done it twice now) is a long conversation lasting about 20-30 minutes on the phone to do exactly the same thing but at great expense if I was calling from overseas.

I won't debate the merits of how secure or otherwise this recent change is nor indeed why they would need to implement all that security online when the phone system is as insecure as ever and of course is over an open channel, anyone within earshot can hear it etc. Bit like having 1 lock on your front door and 2 million locks on your back door then saying "we just added another million locks to the back door; our service is really secure now". Burglars aren't stupid. They break in at the weakest point; therefore the security of the back door is irrelevant until the front door is up to the same standard.

So now I turn to the latest set of problems with online banking. They sent me a card, PIN and reader for use with the online banking service over a year ago. However, at that time I had no need for them. The service didn't require their use either for regular payments. A year passed and in all that time I didn't need them once. Then all of a sudden without warning RBS changed the website behaviour so that paying myself via the same payment I had successfully been using for years was now deemed as high risk as setting up a brand new payment to Nigeria in response to a possible scam. Both transactions now need the card, card reader and PIN. No problem I thought and dug out the card and reader I'd got a year ago.

Went to set up transaction and the system said I would need to order a card reader. Funny that, I wonder what the system thought the thing I was holding was that was called a "card reader". There was no way to reset the flag in the system to say I already had one other than to order another one and wait several days until the system thought it had arrived, by which time I could then use the one I already had.

Then I went to use the card I'd had for a year and realised that since I'd never used the card, I couldn't remember the PIN. I called RBS and asked them to send me a new PIN. No can do, that type of card can't have its PIN reset, they had to order a new card instead. However, there's a problem with the supplier and the new card might take up to 3 weeks to arrive. 4 weeks later, I still have no card, no PIN for use with new card and therefore no on-line service. This remember is from a so called leading bank. Buggy websites, poor card functionality and supplier problems too.

On 15th October I put in the following complaint:

1. That the on-line system was changed without warning and for customers like me who required both a card and PIN we needed a 3 week warning at least to ensure no loss of service. This advance warning was not given.

2. I need a card and a PIN to do trivial on-line transactions between my own accounts that have never been a problem, if you are going to change the service to require cards and PINs, you need to check that these cards and PINs are actually available and there isn't a supplier problem. If there is, you need to either delay the upgrade or have an on-line workaround.

3. My wife and I share the same bank account. It isn't possible to set up pay from the business account to our joint account so that my pay goes through as one transaction and her pay goes through as another transaction without endless security checks. Paying a husband and wife who share a common account is such a basic item it is astonishing that it is impossible with direct banking to set up two payments to the same account but with two difference references (e.g. Craig pay and Joscelin pay). Never mind the "Craig dividends" "Joscelin dividends" and expenses payment references I might need as well - one account can only have one reference at a time.

4. When logging the above complaint on 15th October I was passed between several agents all of whom re-requested my details verbally. This is a security risk when I am calling from a phone as it increases the opportunity of people overhearing the conversation. RBS should implement an internal secure call transfer system, just as they already have when transferring from the telephone banking system to when you speak to an agent.

Points 1,2,3,4 were logged as a complaint on 15th October and I was told I would receive a response by 17th October. On 19th October I complained that no response had been received. On 21st October they wrote me a letter saying that they had tried to call me on the 21st but were unable to make contact. My phone has no record of a missed call or otherwise from the bank on 21st October. The response to my complaint was to explain that a card reader order was pending (which I knew) and that I could order a card reader on-line (which I don't care about as they've just acknowledged one was on its way). The letter then said that the changes were introduced to safeguard customers from possible fraud. No explanation as to why no notice was given, no explanation to explain why the loss of on-line service was not considered any explanation as to when my card and PIN which I am still waiting for would actually arrive, no explanation as to their poor call handling and complaint response times.

So I thought I would document the problems on-line just so they have a written record they can look up in case they lose the details again. I also find that telling an organisation I have put my comments on my blog generally results in a better response than the usual stock half-hearted template reply.

Maybe the next time I think of applying for a bank I should put "I want to work for an incestuous company that has no concept of customer service, technical capability or approach to delivering a high class product" and I might stand more of a chance in future. On the other hand, I might just put "Previous banking experience: UK taxpayer. Through your own incompetence taxpayers like me own a part of you. We bailed you out."

Surely an organisation that used to make billions of pounds profit a year and was bigger than Coke could actually deliver a basic on-line service and help desk that is better than this?

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23 October 2008


Estate Agents and the no commission model

So the property market is now at the point where estate agents are selling houses with no commission charges (This is London; 20th October 2008)

Hardly news for me however, I wrote about this in the Linlithgow Gazette on 17th October and on this very blog almost 5 months ago.

How many more estate agents will go bust before they realise the commission model driven on a low number of high profit sales is no longer viable?

These days the main source of house sales is the Internet. If websites didn't run a closed shop estate agents only model, then members of the general public could sell their own homes for a tiny fraction of the present commission driven cost.

The longer that estate agents cling to the 1%+ sales commission model, the more incentive there is for some real competition from the likes of House network - commission free selling.

I should not more have to pay an estate agent several thousand pounds for picking up the phone and sending a seller my way than I should pay autotrader a commission for selling my car. Even eBay don't charge a commission for selling property.

Conventional estate agents pay attention! Time to wake up and smell the coffee.


Letter from Linlithgow Gazette 17th October 2008:

A challenge

Sir,— I have lived in Linlithgow for over seven years and during that time have seen businesses close in the High Street and seen a reduction in diversity in the High Street, including no toy shop, more sandwich shops and properties lying vacant. Coming from the other side of the argument, I worked for Tesco and was IT manager of the grocery website at their corporate HQ in Hertfordshire last year. Yet I feel that another out of town shopping centre is the last thing the town needs – I would rather have Tesco where it is than a larger supermarket that you need to get in a car to drive to.

The £10 minimum charge levied by retailers on credit cards doesn't apply at Tesco and if the small retailers don't want to alienate people they need to drop this requirement – even small retailers can use credit card clearing facilities that charge a flat amount per month (just like Tesco) rather than a per transaction fee.
My job as an e-commerce consultant takes me all over the UK. When I work in London, I see that small traders get more passing custom yet seem much more willing to capitalise on the internet to supplement their passing trade.

With online shopping continuing to rise, the efforts of the Linlithgow High Street to reach out to anyone wanting to shop on line are woeful by comparison. Even something as basic as a one page website listing the company name, address, email address, products and services and opening hours is missing from most of the High Street traders and instead people searching often find traders in Livingston or Falkirk instead – for example enter Linlithgow Plumber in Google and the first site returned says there are none.

Enter West Lothian computers and Google maps returns nothing for Linlithgow either. Most of the time entering generic search terms, for example Linlithgow pubs or Linlithgow restaurants such as tourists would use, simply results in generic listing type sites over which local businesses usually have little or no control – actually returning the site belonging to a local business or Linlithgow.com would be far more useful.

Whilst Linlithgow.com is a useful first step, in times of a credit crunch and competing with out of town shopping, the woeful presence of Linlithgow on the Internet does not help businesses reach out to new customers who would rather look online.

Indeed even those with the most developed websites, that is estate agents, now face challenges from online-only estate agents who list property for sale on the same websites and at a tiny fraction of the price charged by Linlithgow High Street agents. Even the might of Tesco.com can't tell me what's in stock at my local shop in Linlithgow.

The challenge of out of town shopping, online searching for businesses and online shopping presents a problem for businesses from local high street shops to major retail groups, and the people of Linlithgow. In difficult economic times we need to come together and do everything possible to reach as many customers as possible.
Not having an adequate Internet presence in this day and age is like not having a phone number 30 years ago.

Making Linlithgow at the heart of Silicon Glen fully connected with modern shopping trends would not only complement Cittaslow status, but would help businesses of all kinds to combat the challenges posed not only by Springfield's development but also global shopping trends.—Yours etc.,
Chartered IT Professional

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17 October 2008


Star of Bombay, 157 Westbourne Grove, London W11

If you bought some goods and then had a mandatory 30% charge slapped on them without warning you'd probably be pretty annoyed.

Restaurants do this with alarming regularity, nowhere else indulges in such a dubious practice so why do restaurants such as the Star of Bombay and indeed about 90% of other restaurants annoy and mislead customers like this when 99% of non restaurant businesses are open and honest about their pricing?

Supposing the price of the food is £20. On top of this slap the 10% mandatory service charge whether you like the food or not and even if it's just you eating. So the price of the food is now £22. Rather than an honest price for the food of £22, it's a dishonest £20 with an extra £2 even if the service was rubbish.

On top of that, as a VAT registered business I should be able to claim back the VAT by getting a VAT bill. So the real cost to me should be £20 * 100/117.5 or £17.02. Instead, because the restaurant just issues a piece of paper with a VAT number and a total on it, this is not a VAT bill and as the VAT isn't separately itemised, it can't be reclaimed. Combined with the dishonest 10% mandatory service change (little more than a table ordering charge, since pub bring the food to my table and don't charge a tip) the cost of the meal is £22 instead of £17.02, a mark-up of over 29% and nearly £5. Eat out 5 times a week on business and approx 1.5 meals equivalent cost is due to rip off charges and poor billing practices by restaurants rather than the actual price of the food which I need to eat. When I registered for VAT, one of the first things I learned was how to issue a correct VAT invoice for customers and all it takes is a piece of paper, a computer or till, a printer and calculator/excel/word or similar so that the invoice has the total, vat total, date, address, and VAT number. Hardly rocket science, so why do restaurants think they are the only sector that can do what it likes in terms of billing? It also makes me wonder if a restaurant can't meet its VAT legal obligations, do they have the same laissez-faire attitude towards legal obligations towards food hygiene which require more skill to meet?

Anyone that rips me off by nearly 30% doesn't deserve praise. So in a recession where places are competing for customer business, I will be sending more business the way of pubs because 95%+ of pubs can produce a proper VAT receipt and don't rip me off with a mandatory service charge, whereas 90% of restaurants do (and they are more expensive). I note most restaurants, especially midweek, are pretty quiet just now. They might be busier if there wasn't a 29%+ surcharge in the bill.

As for the food at the Star of Bombay, well it may be the favourite restaurant of The Chemical Brothers, but I found the food fairly ordinary, the poppadoms were too crispy and disintegrated on touching and dumping the sweet menu in my face without asking me if I would like to see the sweet menu meant the mandatory 10% "service charge" was taking liberties with the name of service.

As for the Star of Bombay, I'll leave the Chemical Brothers to it and eat elsewhere in future. There's no chemistry here for me.

'Craig ate here' on 16th October.

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09 October 2008


Khan's Indian restaurant, Westbourne Grove, Bayswater

Food poor, service even worse . Mandatory service charge even if you think the service doesn't deserve it. They can produce a bill with the service itemised but not a correct VAT bill with the VAT itemised, even though they know it should be. Oh and my credit card receipt said "cash". Dodgy food, dodgy billing. Avoid.


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19 August 2008


How Africa can be richer than the Middle East

I was reading about the completion in Dubai of the world's tallest skyscraper. Evidently no shortage of money in Dubai then to build tall or extravagant structures, funded of course by oil. Oil being of course a valuable commodity sold worldwide. Africa has a very valuable commidity, available in almost limitless quantities throughout most of the continent - solar power. Why can't we get our acts together and bring forward schemes for solar power in Africa, this one being even cheaper than oil with the potential to power Europe and 2/3 of the Middle East and North Africa countries. That's just one power station as well and using just 0.3% of the desert space. Why is the EU dragging its feet on this? Surely being able to generate electricty from a green source of energy and sharing the profits in Africa then Africa can not only enjoy the sort of spending power Dubai currently has, we can begin to address issues such as poverty in Africa, famine and disease - none of which seem to be major factors in Dubai.

With such a valuable resource, maybe Africa will become the New Middle East, not only in terms of power and wealth, but also wars and conflict involving the West.


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04 August 2008


UK Government big thinking. National Insurance

The present government is accused by Tony Blair of having no policies.

Here's a policy which someone who has been chancellor for 11 years should be able to sort out.

Simplify the tax system and make it accountable.

Here's an example - look at what National Insurance is for on the direct gov website.

Then use that explanation to explain why EMPLOYERS who derive only a minuscule benefit from National Insurance need to pay more NI than employees. Employers do not get the pension benefit, employers get only a tiny benefit from sick pay. Employers still have to pay the majority of maternity pay and employers get no benefit towards unemployment benefit through this tax. Indeed as a self employed person in a Ltd company, you end up paying approx 24% in National Insurance even though you CANNOT CLAIM UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFIT BETWEEN CONTRACTS because "looking for work" whilst out of work is deemed to be paid employment even though you are not being paid whilst doing it.

This nonsense is little better than the equally bureaucratic mess inherited from the Tories. I took my case in 1996 to my MP who now happens to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Alistair Darling). This was around the time of Harriet Harman's "send my kids to private school" story:

Letter in The Herald 5-Feb-96
This was published in full as their main letter of the day
Poverty trap bound by red tape

The disproportionate publicity given to a Labour MP's decision to send her child to a grant maintained school is causing the real issues affecting millions of people to be quietly brushed aside by the Conservatives. Here is an example of a "customers" experience of the disastrous state the Welfare system is in after nearly 17 years of Tory rule. They only have themselves to blame. As a "Customer" my response is that the Welfare state is a mass of red tape and I'd like to shop elsewhere, if I could.

Last year I was made unemployed and I registered as such with the unemployment office. It turns out, that despite a 500 a month mortgage, approx. 100 a month in bills and a requirement to buy food to live, I am not eligible for any state aid. I am disqualified from receiving any unemployment because during the year 93/94 I was on the Government's Employment Training initiative and only being credited with National Insurance, not paying it. My other 7 full years of actual contributions count for nothing. I couldn't even get the Welfare State to pay my £70 train fare for an interview because the initial contract was for less than 12 months.

I am disqualified from Social Security as I live with my fiancée and she works 25 hours a week. It apparently doesn't matter that her monthly wage is the same as my mortgage. It costs about 600 a month minimum plus food for us to exist and every month we are going more overdrawn because of the lack of the welfare state. The government defines "full time employment" as 16 hours or week or over and if one of a couple is working this, the other is not eligible for social security or housing benefit no matter what their income is. This definition of "full time employment" is patently ridiculous. If I put on my job applications that I would work 16 hours full time, I'd get laughed at. If I put I'd only work 16 hours a week on my signing on card, I would not get full unemployment benefit. The Government clearly has it both ways.

The "Employment Service" fully accept this problem and numerous people at the Employment service have said "I shouldn't say this but you would be a lot better off if your fiancée gave up her job or moved out". Is it really the Conservative party which believes in "family values" which has created this appalling system - forcing people out of work or splitting up families so that they can afford to eat?

Taking the Conservative philosophy of choice to its conclusion - I believe my paying National Insurance is like obtaining an insurance policy for myself and for the benefit of others. My experience of this system is that the rules are obscure and complex. It eliminates people who need money whilst giving money to those who may be out of work but well off. I would like to opt out of this mess, as I can with a pension scheme, and pay towards a scheme which has clear, easy to understand rules which pays out when I need it. Looking at private redundancy schemes, this is what they offer.

What this country really needs though is a simple system for the unemployed and low paid of adding your income, subtracting reasonable outgoings and then paying all or some of the difference, at a level which gives a guaranteed minimum income but is an incentive to go back to work. No exclusion clauses based on one person's 16 hours work expected to fund a couple. No exclusion clauses based on what happened in the tax year years ago and no automatic benefit for the wealthy whilst genuinely poor people are trying to make ends meet.

The issues surrounding one child's schooling pale into insignificance next to the millions caught in a poverty trap by Conservative Red Tape.

So over 12 years later we still have a state system which means that people out of work can end up being disqualified from receiving any state aid whatsoever because of red tape. Zero income was the sort of thing that national insurance was supposed to eliminate so that people did not end up in poor houses. Zero income does not pay bills. Zero income fuels the credit crunch. In a credit crunch, we need an accountable and fair tax system which ensures that when someone is out of work they are entitled to a minimum benefit, just as when they are in work they are entitled to a minimum wage.

So no more paying 24% national insurance contributions and then excluding people from the very benefits that national insurance was set up to provide. Have a flat rate of NI for all. Abolish employers NI contributions and if necessary adjust the income tax rate accordingly to ensure no employees are worse off. This would result in a fairer and more open tax system. The present alternative of taking a 24% insurance premium and then refusing to pay out for the benefits of that scheme is little better than state theft.


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31 July 2008


Modernising tips: Government starting to take action

Following my blog post on tips in April and my note on the government better regulation site logged at the same time, I am pleased to report that at least part of this is now being taken seriously by the government as reported in today's news. We now need to get complete transparency for charging in restaurants now and abolish the nefarious practice of the mandatory service charge, which only serves to distort prices for customers. No other industry distorts their prices this way, and it has to stop in restaurants. The government response (below) to my idea is non committal and does not help consumers.

There are no regulations covering the practice of mandatory service charges or tips; it is a matter for the individual establishment to decide if they make non-optional charges, at what level the charges are set, and if they include different rules in certain circumstances ie parties over a certain number. Of course, consumers can exercise choice by refusing to dine in the establishment where they consider the charges to be unduly prohibitive. However, where obligatory charges are enforced, they must be set out clearly for the consumer whenever there is an invitation to purchase, ie on a menu card. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) 2008, which came into force on 26 May, require traders not to omit material information which the average consumer needs, according to the context, to make an informed choice but is not prescriptive as to how this information must be given (eg in writing). A case could be made that the average consumer is likely to want to know what mandatory charges are included

The Prices Practices Guide which recommends to traders a set of good practices in giving the consumer information about prices in various situations, and takes account of the provisions of the CPRs, advises that where customers are required to pay a non-optional extra charge, such as a service charge, then it should be incorporated within the fully inclusive price wherever possible, also the non-optional charge should be displayed clearly on any price list or priced menu whether displayed inside or outside the establishment. Where, however, an optional sum is suggested for service, it should not automatically be included in the total bill presented to the customer.

Where a service charge or a tip is paid via a bill, it is a matter for the employer to negotiate with the employee how they are shared out. There is no law which sets this out. However, monies paid to a restaurant (eg by credit card) belong to the restaurant in the first instance, and tax is due on tips however they are paid to the waiter. National Insurance Contributions will be due if the tips are paid to workers by the employer.


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