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Category: general whining

That infernal goddamn machine

Haven’t blogged in a while but I enjoyed writing about that black metal gig, and realised that I’m never so happy as when I’m sarcastically complaining about something – so I thought I’d take a moment and recognise the contribution to my life of a very special contraption.

20160317_182043At work we have what most people would describe as a vending machine.

I’m trying to work out whether it’s part of an experimental psychological study by the University of Bristol, or some sort of employee health & wellbeing programme by our company.

The key feature of a vending machine – indeed its very reason for being – is to accept money from the user and accordingly dispense the snacks selected.  This machine does neither of those things.

This sort of scene is not uncommon.

This sort of scene is not uncommon.

For starters, it doesn’t like 10p coins.  It completely rejects shiny 10p coins, and with some convincing you can get it to accept a knackered old one.  It seems like a minor quibble, but the machine more or less perpetually has the “Use Exact Amount” message showing.  Given the price range of most of the items is between 60p and 80p your options for both using exact change and not using 10p coins are somewhat spartan.

Not that the Use Exact Amount message is authoritative – in dire need of a sugar & caffiene hit and armed only with a £2 coin I managed to somehow get both a Coke and £1.40 in change out of it once.  Once.  I think I must’ve taken it by surprise.

Normally of course you get your coins back once you’ve reached the point of admitting that  there are no multiples of 20 that will make 70, and having spent time inside the refrigerated machine (because it’s important to have chilled crisps and museli bars) you’ll at least wind up with a small pocket full of COLD HARD CAAAAAAAASH…

More common though is the mechanised coin-eating cockup which results in this sort of thing:


(where the screw has become wedged under the coke can, so it turns without dispensing and you’ve got to go and tell reception that your money’s been eaten) or this:


(where the bag of crisps gets jammed above the dispense mechanism because it’s the wrong shape – despite being the best-selling crisp flavour in the damn machine – and you’ve got to go and tell reception that your money’s been eaten)

Total jamming isn’t the most common outcome though – it’s usually a case of “suspenseful hanging” as in the picture above.  The usual solution to this is to engage in enthusiastic rocking or shaking of the machine until it freed your quarry.  Too much of this started causing damage to the floor, so work had a piece of checkerplate fitted underneath the machine.


It just seems like the wrong solution to the problem to me.  You know – instead of protecting the floor so it doesn’t get damaged by people rocking the machine, how about, oh, let’s say… GET A FUCKING MACHINE THAT WORKS PROPERLY AND DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ROCKED OR SHAKEN?!

The other outcome of the rocking sometimes is that “bonus items” drop out of the machine, so instead of the bag of crisps you wanted you wind up with a Galaxy bar and a Snickers.

I’m led to believe that I’m not the first person to complain about it, and indeed my attempt at direct contact with the person responsible was met with stony resilience.  Perhaps I should take a different tack and ask whether the company has applied for a gaming licence, given the variable payouts this machine gives.  Might prove a worthwhile gamble…

It can’t realistically be a health initiative now I think of it – even dissuading/depriving the staff of sugary/salty snacks is vastly outweighed by the increase in blood pressure that accompanies any interaction with this godforsaken thing.

Yeah, I got nothing else on this.  Cheers.

Pillockry and privacy

I left my phone on the bus yesterday.

Generally I’ve done pretty well at not losing phones or other tech gadgets compared to many of my contemporaries, but even as a once off* I still felt pretty bloody silly about it.  Not LEAST because as someone who supposedly “knows what they’re doing where tech is concerned” I hadn’t set up and phone location or remote retrieval tools.

So I remembered reading about the Google Location Services metadata collection, within the scope of Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Green Party’s discussions surrounding metadata retention and its potential for abuse.  As part of its ongoing mission to provide you with better information about your journey times and preferred routes, any smartphone with a google account connected to it and with Location Services active will ping back your position about every 40 seconds.  You can therefore see your travels for the day by visiting http://maps.google.com/locationhistory – the info is protected within your google account, but it can be a little shocking to know that this is being collected.  Ludlam particularly talked about how without proper legal protection citizens’ location data could potentially be used to enforce speeding tickets, or for people to be able to cross-reference with phone call logs and find out where you were when you called particular numbers.  It’s all a bit “The Wire” in that sense.

So anyway, visiting the page I saw that my location for the day – or at least that of my phone – looked like this:

File 12-06-2015 00 48 03

The graph at the bottom shows displacement from starting location, so you could see me get the bus to work, then the bus turned around & went back along the route, all the way to the end, around a triangle bit, then back again.  So about 11am whoever had found my phone obviously got off the bus and then went and sat down.

Phoning the Lost Property office, they said that they were located in Bath and that lost phones usually didn’t get to them til the following day or so, when their agent goes around all the bus depots and collects the lost property.  I said I’d noticed the phone had stopped just off Easton Road and she said “Oh that’ll be our Lawrence Hill depot most likely – if you can get there before 8pm you might be able to pick it up!”.

Meanwhile in a parallel action I’d tried subscribing to the well-known adage “If you want a response from a British company, give their customer service department a swerve and try getting to them via social media”- the theory being that customer services are inevitably bogged down my months of complaints, but social media is very much in the public eye, so they tend to have cheap or free labour keeping tabs on what people are saying and doing whatthey can to give responsive and reputation-salvaging help. Sometimes.

In this case I tweeted FirstBus that I’d left my phone on the bus but the lost property office didn’t open til 11, so what would they recommend.  I had a response within 20 minutes asking if I stillhad my bus ticket (which I did – they tend to live in my pockets til I get home, mainly out of laziness).

It transpires that though a ticket is an antiquated, or in fact, outmoded piece of transactional flotsam in this case it also contained some key information for reuniting me with my lost phone.  Rather than “I got on the number 7 at about 8:15?”, I was able to use the ticket data:

It contains the bus ID, the Driver ID, and exact time information which presumably you can correlate with the driver that’s brought your stuff in!

I tweeted back that I had the ticket and sent over the relevant bits of info, excited that technology had prevailed and I’d stumbled on a rare example of a functioning methodology.

As it happened, after I sent the tweet off with my data I never heard anything back from First Bus for the rest of the afternoon.  So my “impressed customer” rating swung briefly from somewhere near zero (default state for any bus company in Bristol, I’m afraid to say), up to Very Impressed Indeed, and then back to zero again when I realised that their responsiveness was an unexpected token outlier rather than an indicator of capability and customer focus.

I basically bowled in to the depot 10 minutes before it closed and said “I left a phone on the bus this morning”.  The guy asked if I could describe it, so I gave a fairly generic description, then he came out with my phone & handed it over – no details taken, or asking to see my ticket, or anything.

So, I’m very happy to be reunited with my phone.  I remain underwhelmed by First Bus – for a different reason than usual.  I feel like I’ve learned a few things, and I don’t know whether I’ll disable Location Services or not.  Supposing it hadn’t been the driver that found it, but someone else picking it up and taking it off into the wild yonder – would I have felt compelled to try to track them down before my battery ran out, or just consign it to the dustbin of history and enter into a probably fruitless insurance claim?  Who knows…

I still feel like a bit of a git for leaving my phone on the bus though.  And First Bus can still fuck off.

* OK, so there was that one time in a cab in Frankfurt about 8 years ago.

Obligatory post-election post

I’ve gone on at length before about how I don’t like the British electoral system, and last night’s General Election is a shining example of why.

Before going further I’d like to make it clear that this viewpoint is totally removed from the outcome of who won.  In truth, I don’t recall ever voting for a candidate who won in an electorate (both in Australia and then in Britain) so I’m used to democratic disappointment.

The key issue which bothers me is the cyclical nature of disenfranchisement in the system, which is that under First Past The Post the party that wins can hold a very small share of the votes as cast by the people.

Last night, 66.1% of the voting population of the UK (46,425,386)* had their votes counted.  This morning it was made widely known that the Conservative Party stormed into Government winning a majority of 331 of the 650 seats in the UK parliament.

Looking at the proportion of vote figures, it’s very hard to take the word “majority” seriously.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 16.24.57

More people didn’t turn up to vote than who cast a vote for any of the major or minor parties (amusingly – I thought – traditional donkey-vote party The Monster Raving Loony Party tallied more than double the vote that extreme rightwing actual genuine nutjobs the British National Party got).

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to understand peoples’ reasons for not voting without further surveying, and collecting such data would come at vast effort and expense – especially given that the group being targeted have already demonstrated their lack of interest in participation in filling out forms.

When I’ve discussed this on Facebook in the leadup I was told by a few people that the system here works whereby people who don’t vote don’t count, and therefore their voice/presence shouldn’t be considered.  So of those that did vote, the outcomes were as follows:


(The inner pie is the percent voter share, the outer ring is the number of parliamentary seats each group won)

I realise that if the system were purely based on vote proportion then that would mean UKIP would have much larger representation and most sane people agree that’s not a good thing.  However equally the far more sparsely populated Scotland would command a much smaller share, and that’s where my limited understanding of things runs out of steam a little.

The main cut & thrust of the argument though is that this voting system allows for a “majority” where in reality that party’s supported by little over a third of the country.

This presumably is why it’s only minority parties (such as the Liberal Democrats last time) who believe vote reform to be a key issue, and when we were given the chance to do something about it 66% of 42% of the population shot it down.

I’d feel a lot more faith in the political system if at least the election were geared so that a party needed to get more than 50% of the electorate’s support in some way or other in order to win the seat.  The “Alternative Vote” system was one way of going about it, and history’s passed its judgement on that.  But I just can’t see how the general public here can support a system where in a hypothetical electorate of 1000 people with 5 equally supported candidates that with a 50% turnout one of them would only need to get 101 votes in order to be considered to have the “majority” of the vote.

In my local constituency of Bristol West I was at least encouraged to see that we had a 72% turnout to the polls, leaving the result looking like this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 17.34.36

(Again, the non-voters outweighing any selections made) or, for the people whose blood boils at having non-voters included:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 17.36.50

At least it’s interesting in that only just over 50% of the participating electorate support either of the two major parties.

The one thing I’m left wondering is where in the statistics the people who spoiled their vote sit.  It must go into “Did Not Vote”, I guess.  If nothing else, this should dissuade people who feel that by vote-spoiling they’re registering their dissatisfaction with the process and/or the methodology, whereas these results as published seem to indicate that they’re just ignored as well.**

So, in summary – First Past the Post means that though you may not feel your vote makes any difference, the actual difference it makes increases in line with the number of people who don’t show up to the polling booth.

The other thing I probably should highlight is that postal voting really is the way to go: it’s quite easy to register, it’s 100% convenient & doesn’t take time out of your day, and you can vote whilst listening to loud music and wearing nothing but a coloured rosette without being arrested or having your vote discounted.  It REALLY is the way forward.

* figures taken from the BBC News results analysis

** if anyone knows where to find the spoiled ballot statistics I’d be very interested to see that too.

Addendum: Well, there we are – it seems that one of the perks of being in charge is the ability to alter the system so you’ll stay in charge next time as well.  The Conservatives have announced that top order of business is redrawing the electoral boundaries in such a way that it’ll be likely that they’ll win a larger share of seats next time.  I wonder how hard it is to move to Sweden?

Some things I learned today

  1. If you’re going to restore a backup from your laptop to your iPad, you need to use an Official Apple Cable, and not an aftermarket one: the internal construction isn’t the same, meaning that the connection can drop partway through the process and brick your iPad.  Also, the chap you take your iPad to at the Genius Bar to fix it will sneer at you.
  2. It takes just under an hour for my iPad to be re-imaged and restored from the backup.
  3. Where it says “Full Backup” in iTunes, that doesn’t mean “full backup” – when the bloke in the shop reimages your iPad with iOS 8.1.1, the backup you’re subsequently restoring doesn’t contain the operating system (in my case, 7.1.2).  So, “full backup” is a bit of a crock.
  4. Though it’s possible to disassemble most of a Gaggia Classic fairly easily, unblocking one just isn’t something that I can be arsed with.
  5. 0 out of 5 butchers in my area stock beef cheek.  1 out of 5 had any idea what I was talking about.

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That’s better.

Not *much* better, mind you.

It’s with a fairly monotonous sense of regularity that I find myself pondering why nothing in this country seems to work properly.  So if you’ve got the stomach for reading on you’ll see a(nother) good illustration of the sort of thing I mean.

I’ve had a phone contract with a company – let’s call them “Purple” – for a while now.  When I signed up for it I owned my phone handset, and I just needed a SIM plan with a reasonable data allowance.  The plan I signed up for gave me – among other things – an allowance of 500mb of mobile data a month.  As it happened, that was more than enough when I had my HTC Desire phone, as its onboard memory was so appallingly small that you couldn’t browse more than 2 webpages or read 3 emails or tweet twice before its cache filled and rendered it impossible to connect.  Upgrading to the HTC Desire S gave me some brief respite from this, however my affection for it waned as the touchscreen started malfunctioning and clicking on stuff I hadn’t clicked on, as well as the cache filling up and rendering me unable to view anything online.  But in the peak of its workiness I averaged about 300mb a month.

A few weeks back I stumped up the quids for a shiny new Google Nexus 4 phone – a new device full of promise, and vastly improved internet capability.  The result being that last month even though I’ve throttled everything back as far as practical and keep a watchful eye on things with data monitoring apps, I used just over 600mb, and this month I’m up to 550mb, with another 4 days left in the billing cycle – truth be known I hit 500mb about a week ago, and have kept the damage minimal by spending most of my time indoors and not using my phone.  Debating the merits of all that is a whole separate issue, but the relevant point of this is that I need a plan with a chunkier data allowance.

Weighing up the options around, I decided that one company – let’s call them “Sturgeon” – had the best plan to suit me: primarily because it includes Unlimited* data, unlimited phone minutes, and unlimited text messages.  All for about a fiver a month less than Purple charge me, and hopefully without their occasional text messages offering me cheap tickets to gigs that they mistakenly think I’m interested in.

After last month’s bill in fact I’d decided it time to jump companies to the more relevant plan, so I hopped onto the Sturgeon Mobile website and signed up for their phone plan, and I was delighted to get their confirmation telling me that my SIM card would arrive in the post shortly.

Asking Liz very nicely to keep her eyes on incoming post for this wondrous arrival, my enthusiasm waned as the reality that “shortly” probably meant “within 10 working days” set in, and so 11 days later I found myself at our Bristol flat with no sign of any SIM card.

Mobile phone shops are an ever-present fixture of all shopping areas in the UK – one shudders to think how many phones some people go through in a year to necessitate there being so many.  Nevertheless, my logical analysis of the problem was that if there was some delay in the processing of my order then perhaps the happy chappies at my local Sturgeon Mobile store would have access to the system and be able to give me a more concrete answer.  Or, better yet, they could cancel my online order and issue me with a SIM card in store.

Stop laughing.

After explaining my situation to the scruffily-bearded youth with the obligatory short sleeve shirt & shiny tie (it’s SO hard to resist saying “You’ve got red on you”), he tapped away at the keyboard and then informed me that there was no record of my order in the system.  I showed him the confirmation email, and he agreed that that indicated I’d placed an order, and his suggestion was that I call customer services.  Up until that point I’d been convinced that the primary purpose of shop staff was to provide a service to the customers, and applying pressure to this definition he reluctantly agreed to let me use the shop phone to call the 0845 number (rather than incurring charges on my Purple phone contract).

FFUUUUUUUUPredictably the Customer Service operator was as useful as a mint-flavoured suppository, however they were able to confirm that though my order had gone through the system, no account had been created and therefore no SIM was on the way.  It occurred to me to ask how long I would have waited before being given this information (it’s possible that some people apply for a new mobile phone account and then having done that just happily keep on using their old one safe in the knowledge that that’s another task off the To-Do list), but figured it more prudent to get straight onto a workaround, and within about 15 short minutes of discussion were able to conclude that I could apply for a SIM in store without fear of being double-billed.  He also agreed that the service I’d received was substandard, but due to me not having a Sturgeon account, he was unable to credit me with any sort of refund by way of apology.  Mmm… minty…

So, Mr Shiny Tie agrees to sign me up for the SIM plan which I was looking for, and asks his youthful assistant to take care of business (him having instantly become too busy with something – not that I was complaining, as youthful assistant was quite smiley and helpful).  She asked me all the questions someone would ask through the course of a phone account application, until we got to the credit check part.

“You did say you lived at number 32, didn’t you?”


“Hmm.  According to this, it doesn’t exist.”

“I can assure you, it does.  I slept in it last night.”

She beckoned me around the other side of the screen, and sure enough in the “credit check” part of the process there was an Address Finder screen which resolves your street number and postcode to an address for matching & fraud prevention purposes.  It’s something which every bank application, online shop, government agency, and… oh, I don’t know, EVERYTHING uses.  Only according to this piece of software the address which all of my bank accounts, my driving licence, mortgage, etc. doesn’t exist.  Flat 31 does, although the people at Flat 33 will be equally distraught to know that they’re homeless too.

The girl (who had an excellent name, it has to be said, but I’m not telling you what it was) looked exasperated for a second, then started tapping away at something else, and looked puzzled.  “The address exists on the Royal Mail website”, she said. “As indeed it does in real life”, I added.  “Is it a new flat, perhaps?”.  “Well, the building was put up in about 1900”.

She phoned the call centre and explained the conundrum to someone there, then started nodding with semi-certainty, scratching notes on a pad and saying “riiiiiiiight”, before hanging up and looking at me with an expression that said “Please be prepared for the fact that this answer is going to be of no use to you whatsoever”.

The source of the problem is that my address doesn’t exist in the 3rd party credit checking software that the Sturgeon application screen uses.  Therefore in order to be able to place the order, the customer needs to contact the 3rd party software vendor and correct the problem.

Yep, that’s right.  In order to get a phone contract, I have to contact a credit checking software vendor – which will no doubt involve navigating their departmental and telephone structure, and explaining the problem to an unknown quantity of confused call centre staff – to ascertain why my perfectly legitimate address doesn’t appear in their database, and then have that corrected.  Whether this subsequently means contacting Sturgeon Mobile and being put through to the software team that looks after version refreshes to make sure that THEIR system can see my address too is as yet unclear.

Optimistically I phoned the 3rd party provider to discuss the issue, but found myself quickly routed through some option panel menus to be ultimately dealt with by someone who didn’t look after an area relevant to my question, and they proved their resilience in getting back on-script no matter what the customer tried to say to them by insisting I register on their website for my free credit check, or I could order a postal copy from them for only £3.  I tried arguing that there were certain problems in ordering a postal copy from a system which doesn’t think your address exists, but now was clearly not the time for facts or logic to enter the discussion.

Quite why it’s not possible for someone at Sturgeon to follow this up in the pursuit of acquiring another customer is a bit of a mystery to me – presumably they’ve already worked out that if a customer can’t be signed up within 10 minutes then it’s not cost effective to get them on board.  It still doesn’t answer why my online application went through to completion & I was issued with email confirmation though.  I can only surmise that the reason they didn’t write to me to tell me my order had been cancelled is that they can’t, because my address doesn’t (apparently) exist.

Any suggestions?

* “unlimited” here presumably means that it’s subject to some sort of limit, although background reading on the topic suggests that it’s not going to become problematic until I start hitting 3-4gb a month.  So, can’t wait for that episode in the saga…

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