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Don’t you just love being in control? February 11, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants.
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At the start of the year I changed my gas and electricity supplier to British Gas, partly inspired by an offer of a £60 backhander from Quidco to do so.

Last week a letter turns up telling me that as I haven’t had my gas meter inspected in the last 18 months they were going to come today to inspect it, and if wasn’t here to let them in and I hadn’t called them to rechedule the appointment to a time that was convenientthey would have to consider applying to a magistrate for permission to enter the property.

Somewhat taken aback by the arsey tone of the letter I phoned to have words, and was assured that it was just the wrong form letter which had been sent out, and they were able to reschedule the appointment for this evening between 18.00 and 20.00.

So I get home from work to find a card stating that they turned up at 8.20 this morning. Pillocks. So back on the phone to have further words. “Ah, there’s a note here that they tried to contact you to tell you that they couldn’t make the appointment but couldn’t get through”.

“So given that you knew the original appointment was no good for me and I wouldn’t be here, you turned up anyway rather than cancelling it?”

“Umm… yes. It’s this computer system, it doesn’t let you cancel things very easily”

Sigh. We’ll see how badly they cock up the newly rearranged appointment for Thursday. Otherwise we’ll be seeing how well the system lets them cancel other things… you know, like accounts.

If your only hammer February 9, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.
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There’s a saying in IT circles that “if your only hammer is Microsoft Office, it’s amazing what looks like a nail”.  And it’s quite apt, lots of technologists get irritated seeing people struggling to do things because they’re using the wrong software.  But I think there’s more to it, and I propose an update to the proverb – “if your only software is Microsoft Excel, it’s amazing what looks like a spreadsheet”.

The problem with the way some people use Excel is that they think it’s a database.  I was asked by one of the admin staff at work for some help identifying rows on a spreadsheet in which one of the columns values also appeared in a second worksheet.

To me Excel’s VLOOKUP function is a pain in the arse.  To use that, you’re almost certainly dealing with relational data.  So why not do the job properly and use a database, where you can craft an SQL query and get much more flexibility?

Until very recently I had a severe dislike of Access, but I’ve found a great feature in it – Linked Tables.  These turn out to be fantastic for getting out of the kind of problems where some well meaning but misguided person has used Excel when they neded a database.  You can use their Excel mess as a table or tables in your database.

Using Linked tables means that you can continue to update the Excel file and the queries will have access to the updated information.  This came in very handy with a ridiculous system where a friend of mine was having to enter some information onto a spreadsheet from a pile of paperwork, then trawl through it to create a seperate report which aggregates the data into a different format.  Because it had always been done that way, naturally.  Of course because both reports were compiled manually there were discrepancies and a lot of stress.  By adding some extra fields to the  spreadsheet outside the printable area, it could be linked to a database and the second report generated automatically, with no possibility of the two reports having totals which disagreed.

hmm August 6, 2007

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.
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I guess I ought to send this one to The Daily WTF but I’ll post it here. The Lycos account creation procedure needs you to create a security question. Unfortunately it’s dictating that your dad’s name needs to be 6 characters or more. Because of course no names contain less than 6 characters…

Lycos form verification WTF

(name changed for security reasons!)

One of the other security questions offered, “where did you spend your last holiday” is stupid too -when the time comes to retrieve your lost password you now have to work out when you created the account and then try to remember where you went on holiday before???

Water set of numpties! July 28, 2007

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants.
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So a card arrives through the door on Tuesday saying that Balfour Beatty, Yorkshire Water’s contractors, need to turn my water supply off on Thursday and Friday from 0800 to 2000 for some work they’re doing. Fair enough, so I bought several litres of cheap bottled water just in case.

Thursday, come home to find the water is still on and isn’t mud coloured so assume it hasn’t been turned off.

Friday, come home to no water. 6.30 bloke in yellow hi-vis vest comes to ask if it’s back on yet and advising me to wiggle the stop-cock to free any muck that’s got into it. Nope, not working, says I. There’s a plumber coming down the street who’ll be with you shortly, says he.

7.00 Friday, go out for the evening and come home to find still no water.

9.00 Saturday ring Yorkshire Water and politely ask WTF is going on, and am told somebody will ring back within the hour. I point out that as I’ve been without water for about 24 hours now that that isn’t good enough and suggest that they ring back in the next 15 minutes and get themselves here to fix it within the hour, and am told that she’s already put it a high priority, it would usually be 2 hours for the call.

Call happens within an hour and plumber sets off. When he gets here he tells me he’d been working his way down the street fixing people’s supply last night, got to me about 10pm – only 2 hours after the water was meant to be back on – and nobody was answering the door (I was in the pub) He discovers that no water is getting to the meter chamber and that the gang is going to have to come back to dig the road up and fix it. A lash-up is possible in the meantime but he has only one set of the parts it needs and the lash-up needs two.

So as things stand, I still have no water, and a gang is coming back this afternoon to either dig up the road again or install a trip hazard between next door’s meter chamber and mine to lash it up.

Ah well, should be a nice bit of compensation on the way…

Update Sunday morning: The plumber did indeed call the gang out to fix both mine and a neighbour a few doors down. Their innovatove solution to the neighbours’ problem? A long pipe going from an outside tap at a house several doors down, through the sodding letter box! The plumber bloke was back on site to sort out next door (my new neighbour is moving in today amidst this chaos), and he took one look at this bodge and described the gang who had done it as “wankers”, and mentioned that their letter box bodge is actually illegal.

They hadn’t bothered to do anything to put my water back on, so he added an extra lash-up onto the one the main contractors had done and added a T piece into the hose pipe and fed it into my meter chamber. So I now have water, courtesy of somebody else’s outside tap. That’s gonna be nice, clean drinking water then ::sigh::

Update Tuesday PM: Well here we are, water still fed via a glorified garden hose. Balfour Beatty have been on site most of the last two days and still haven’t managed to fix whatever it is they buggered up!

Update Thursday AM:  Still on the hosepipe, but their Customer Service Co-ordinator came round yesterday with an update, it seems that they’ve been spraying the inside of the water main with something to reinforce it, and in doing so they’ve managed to block the spur that my water is fed from.  And they need to dig it up and drill a hole in to clear it.  And they tried it on Tuesday but dug in the wrong place.  But they’re going to send me a hamper to apologise for the inconvenience, and hopefully I’ll still get the compo from Yorkshire Water themselves.

Good Thing… Bad Thing June 15, 2007

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.

Good thing: Developing and deploying an innovative system[1] so that the UPS on a server at work can text me when the power goes off.

Bad thing: Being worken up by news of power cuts at work in the middle of the bloody night.

[1] An over-complicated lash-up because the UPS software and the authentication method on the mail server aren’t compatible.

::sigh:: These guys just don’t get it January 6, 2007

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.
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This video appeared on YouTube yesterday, posted by researchers at Cambridge. They’ve managed to make a Chip and Pin card reader run a Tetris game


Now this is scary stuff, it seems that it is possible for these allegedly tamper proof card readers to have the program running on them replaced with something arbitrary. Which means that somebody could replace it with a program which looked exactly like the interface you normally get on such a reader but have it take the card details and PIN number and store it.

But, the people commenting on YouTube seem more concerned with slagging off the guy’s Tetris abilities. I give up.

Tech Support – when will it cater for people above the Lowest Common Denominator August 12, 2006

Posted by Steve in Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.
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In the latest in my series of rants offering free clue to the businesses of the UK, I turn my attention to ISP Technical Support, and wonder why they seem only to cater for people who require help locating their on-of switch.

Having, on several occasions, had to educate the tech support “agents” on the end of the phone about the protocols which underpin the internet ( for example I’d diagnosed a DNS issue, but needed to explain what DNS does before getting anywhere) it seems to me that these organisations need to do more to address the needs of bone fide geeks who call up.

Usually when I have an issue I’ve already troubleshooted everything at my end. I know what I can and can’t ping, whether I’m getting an IP address over DHCP, I’ve tried a proxy server and third party DNS servers. I don’t need to be asked to go to start, click run and type “C…M…D” into the box, and wait for a black window to appear and type in “P…I…N…G…” (yes, that really did happen)

So here’s a suggestion for the ISPs – train your first line “techs” to recognise when they have somebody on the end of the phone who knows what they are talking about. Train them to pass such calls to somebody who can help them. If a geek is phoning in with an issue, it is something non standard. In fact they’ve probably found a workaround and are doing you the courtesy of calling to let you know that you have a problem. The script isn’t going to cover it so don’t waste the time. Put them through to a fellow geek and let them thrash out the issue between them.

The more experienced technician is going to welcome having somebody on the end of the line who can do diagnostics without having to be walked through it keypress by keypress, and the caller is going to be glad of being able to feel like they’ve helped to sort the problem out. And of course it is these people who are often asked for recommendations for an ISP and will be more likely to give your company a glowing recommendation if they’ve had a good experience with your tech support.

It’s not rocket science, is it? It’s what used to happen at my particular ISP before they outsourced their tech support to clueless people 😦

I remember when banks used to listen March 6, 2006

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants.
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Ouch, two moan posts in a row…

Could someone explain to me what the Halifax are playing at? I have their Web Saver account, which is supposed to be operated online.

In an attempt to buy a car today (which didn’t happen, but I don’t want to do three moans in a row so I’ll spare you that story) I turned up at the bank to attempt to withdraw several hundred poinds to purchase the modest vehicle I was interested in. Having established that the ATM would only allow me £300 per day I took my place in the queue. The cashier swiped my card and found that he wasn’t given an option on his screen to allow a withdrawl. A little head scratching and investigation found that as it’s a Web saver account, I’m unable to use the branch facilities, I get a (marginally) better interest rate because I have to do things online and via the ATM.

Which is fine when it *is* something I don’t have to waste the staff’s time with. But how am I supposed to withdraw larger amounts? Do the Halifax not realise that people use savings accounts to accumulate money to make large purchases? Apparently closing the account wasn’t even an option in the branch.
Suggestions for less clueless financial institutions gratefully received.

A joined up transport system? March 5, 2006

Posted by Steve in Moans, Whinges and Rants.
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I had a little trip down south this weekend, and travelled on GNER in both directions, having booked with thetrainline.com. Unfortunately there were cockups in both directions:

Southbound, I had a seat reserved for the entire journey. So I was somewhat surprised when someone got on halfway through the journey brandishing a reservation for the same seat. The guard sorted the situation out by finding this guy (who had been very understanding and accepted that there had been a double booking and didn’t try to turf me out of my seat) a seat, which happenned to be in first class, the lucky git.

Northbound, a wonderful mess where I was booked on a seat that didn’t exist. By virtue of it being on a train that didn’t exist. Hmm… the guys at Doncaster sorted me out and got me onto a suitable train which was actually faster than the fictitious one so I had time to get some lunch in Sheffield. A ridiculous route but it did save 60 quid on the fare.

Makes you wonder if one hand knows what the other is doing…

Why buying online still doesn’t work February 12, 2006

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants.

Firstly, welcome to my new blog. I’ve thought about starting one for a while now, but always thought that I didn’t have anything to say, but as that doesn’t seem to stop anyone else I figured I may as well hop onto the bandwagon 😉

Not sure whether kicking off a new blog with a rant is a good idea or not, but I guess I may as well start as I mean to continue.

I decided it was time for me to treat myself to a new camera and, having chosen the model I wanted with some help and advice from knowledgeable people like my good friend Sam, set about finding a supplier who a) I had heard of, b) had it in stock and c) were cheaper than the high street. Point B was the major sticking point in the equation.

Eventually I settled on ebuyer who I have bought from in the past with no trouble and had the item in stock at a considerable saving over the high street price, which would cover accessories like a battery charger, memory card and case.

All going well you might think – the credit card transaction went through without incident and I had confirmation emails sitting in my inbox. But what happened next is the major point that e-commerce firms don’t get: some of us poor sods have to go to work.

Why do these companies insist on using couriers which only deliver during the day? Is it not fairly obvious where I’m going to be during “office hours”? So a phone call to the number on the card they left didn’t get me very far as they were unable to be more specific than which day they could attempt a redelivery on, and had no suggestions other than visiting the depot on Saturday morning. A depot on an out of the way industrial park in Morley. An hour’s bus ride away, and there’s only one an hour. And they close “at about 1pm”. So having eventually found the place, at about 12.20pm I find that they’ve shut up shop and buggered off home.

Fantastic. So I still don’t have the camera.

Now if the supermarkets can offer a delivery within a 2 hour time slot why can’t the courier services? Or if not why not use Royal Mail parcels (not the same as ParcelForce) or at least offer it as an option, then I can go and pick the item up from my local sorting office before I go to work.

Or is providing a service to your customers of little relevance to these companies any more?