Monday, 29 November 2010

Leslie Nielson RIP

The 80/20 rule is much abused, but (in short) it says that 20% of some input is usually responsible for 80% of some output. For example, 80% of your profit comes from 20% of your customers.

The same applies to comedy, I think. A small number of performers are responsible for the majority of the laughs. Leslie Nielson was one of those small number of performers. A steady stream of simply hilarious performances kept me laughing through the 80s and beyond.

Thank you, Leslie. Thank you.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Lateral Thinking

Yesterday, I went on a Caterham Experience Day.  How did I feel once I'd finished?

Well, my arms hurt. My neck hurt.   My back ached.  I was utterly knackered.  It was horrendously cold all day. 

In summary? I'd had an utterly brilliant time.  We spent all day driving around in exactly the way that you're not meant to, in one of these:

The cars were unregistered 1.6 Roadsports, specially set up for the drift days. The front suspension was made as hard and low as possible, with the anti-roll bar completely removed and good sticky tyres fitted. The rear suspension and ARB were set as soft and high as possible, and rubbish tyres were fitted. 16 of us shared 3 cars. They had 5 cars in total, two were for spares (we used one of those up...)

The venue was the huge flat(ish) car park just on your left as you go into the main entrance at Silverstone. We had to get there for 8:30, flash our driving licences, deal with the witty comments about the quality of our mugshots, get some coffee & biscuits (prudence said not too many...), and then we were outside for the briefing at 9am.

Initially, the cones were set up to define an in & out hammerhead plus a mini-roundabout on the way back. The instructions were to go into the hammerhead, drift around both ends of the head before coming out, do a rolling donut around the mini-roundabout and then back into the "pit" (which was actually just more cones!). A special yellow cone was provided at the pit entrance where we had to stop and touch the cone. This was for health & safety reasons - first, it made you actually stop rather than sort of stop (safety), and second it reminded you to breathe out again (health).

The course was demonstrated very ably by Sam, the petite long-haired blonde daughter of one of the organisers. After watching her, we all looked to see if there was somewhere we could go to surrender our Man Card.

And off we went. Each of us went round once, then back to the pits while the other two cars went, then one more lap before getting out for someone else. The typical routine was to head slowly and jerkily towards the hammerhead, go into the first turn, stay entirely stable with no drift, try the second turn, spin, stall, restart the engine, and head for the mini-roundabout. Here, the quick learners really shone - they managed not to stall while spinning it. Then back to the pit for a second try.

By the second try, we had mastered the art of understeering wildly away from the cones. This is a huge improvement, because there is no need to restart the engine.

(A note on re-starting; this is done by pressing the red button on the left of the steering wheel. Not, and this is very important, by pressing the black button on the right of the steering wheel. That button is the horn, and will reduce all the watchers in the pit lane into fits of laughter.)

By halfway through the morning, we were getting the hang of it. With the car set up as it was, on cold damp tarmac, getting it loose was not really a challenge so we were able to try to look for some connection between what the car did, and what we did with our wildly flailing arms and madly stabbing feet. It seems that there is, which was a welcome discovery.

As we had got the hang of that track and were beginning to enjoy it a bit, they changed it to a figure-of-8. Sam demonstrated. We drooled (at her driving abilities...). The instructions were "Keep going round until you see the flag. Then come back." The instructions were not "Keep going round until you are in the zone and completely unable to see the flag that we have been manically waving for the last few few laps and we have to start running towards you to get your attention." However, I think a few people misunderstood. Easily done.

Then lunch. Lunch had one aspect which was hugely welcome. It was warm. Soup, baked potato, rice, garlic bread, korma, chilli, tea, coffee and biscuits were all there to choose from. By now we were quite cold, having been outside and mainly standing around waiting. So the chance to warm up was very welcome.

Then we went back out into the cold, to find that a fiendishly difficult track had been set up. We were meant to go out of the pits, then through a right/left/right/left/right slalom away from the pits, across to a mini-roundabout, back toward the pits via a right/left/right slalom, then onto a final mini-roundabout then back in. Sam demonstrated. Some asked if the Caterhams had satnav.

And off we went. Some proved that they did indeed need the satnav that was unfortunately not present, which was almost as funny to watch as someone trying to restart an engine by use of the horn. We carried on until about 3:15pm, and then stopped to be told we had one more practice then we were being assessed on our second laps. Ulp.

Scoring was that we started with 100, lost 25 for each spin, 10 for each cone we collected, and 10 if we didn't touch the yellow cone at the end. There was also a finer grading based on Sam's subjective assessment of drift quality. Oh, and you lost 30 points if you weren't aggressive enough.

After that was done, back into the warm for tea and prizes. Yours truly scored 82, which I'm quite pleased with as that put me about 4th or 5th, the winner scoring 85. First prize was a bag of Autoglym make-up, second a Caterham hat, and third a Caterham mug.

Then off home. I figured that it was actually medically impossible for me to get any colder, so I left with the roof down. After all, why not... (I managed that for about 20 mins before realising that it was medically possible to get colder, it is called being dead)

The trip home was via the M40.  It was its usual Sunday evening state, which led me to wonder - when filling out an application form for a firearms licence, when you get to the question which asks why you need a gun, would an acceptable answer be "Have you seen the lane discipline on the M40"?

All in all, a fantastic and well-organised day that I thoroughly recommend to you all.

I'm now kind of thinking, a Caterham is so small... surely I could hide one somewhere without anyone noticing?

Friday, 19 November 2010

Policing the Police

Inspector Gadget is pleased that Mark Andrews has been let off.  I'm not.

Now, Gadget makes the valid point that most of us have not been privy to the whole CCTV tape, or to the defence argument.  That is a relevant point.  We do not know the whole story.  However, that does not get Mark Andrews off the hook in my eyes.  Let us look at the whole picture.  Let us look at each of the interactions that I have had with the Police over the years.

 - a call to report a loud, drug-fuelled party that continued until 6am; the Police told me that they would not be attending as I was the only complainant.  The following morning, it transpired that they had told my neighbour that, too.

 - after the theft of my mother's handbag and car keys from her house, the Police declined her suggestion that they should mention to their night shift that her car was vulnerable, on the grounds that they did not expect the thieves to return.  The bag was never recovered.

 - the following morning, the Police disagreed with my mother's suggestion that the overnight theft of her car was related to the previous day's theft of the car keys. The car was not recovered in a usable state.

 - the Police attended when my Dad died, and called me to say that she was very upset and asking for me.  Before showing me into the room with my distraught mother, they felt the need to stop and ask me how far I had come and how I had managed the journey so quickly.  Priorities, priorities...

 - following a burglary from her house, my mother's neighbour reported to the Police the registration number of the van that had been left, engine running, doors open, outside the house during the burglary.  No action was taken.

 - the report of vandalism to vehicles on my drive, prompted by alcohol (as shown by the broken bottles) and leaving me with repair bills of circa £400, led to me being given a crime number but no action being taken.  

 - a break-in to our neighbour's house led to an impressively fast attendance by a number of officers.  Sadly, they did not think to arrive by both possible approaches to our road, and missed the offenders who left via the other approach.  Neither was ever caught.

 - I was pulled over for pulling out in front of an unmarked police car in what he felt was a dangerous manner.  If it was so dangerous, I am left wondering why he invited me out?

 - After a van driver rammed Mrs P's car and knowingly failed to stop, the Police decided to take no action.  This left us holding the £350 repair bill.  Mrs P was given a producer and warned that failure to comply would lead to prosecution.

 - A less than wholly polite gesture (on my part) to a scamera van led to a like gesture in return.  His sergeant threatened me with action under the Public Order Act, but specifically denied that the camera operator had made any gesture.

This is, of course, an entirely one-sided picture.  I have missed out all the occasions on which Police action has been taken and a penalty has been extracted from the wrongdoer.  So, in the interests of openness, I shall list those, too.

 - a speeding fine for my mother, caught on camera at 35 in a 30 limit.  On, it should be pointed out, a trunk road whose limit varies repeatedly between 30 and 40.  At 3am, while the road was completely empty (apart from her...).  £60 and three points.

 - a further similar speeding fine, for my mother again.  £60 and three points.

Then, there is the celebrated case of a businessman local to my area, whose house was broken into and he and his family tied up and threatened.  His brother-in-law happened to disturb the burglars, released him, and they both gave chase.  He and his brother were prosecuted, and the burglars merely cautioned - both of which would have been decisions within the power of the Police.

Meanwhile, it is well-known that we need to observe a curfew in our town centre, avoiding it late on Friday and Saturday.  So we can conclude that the Police are not doing a great job in that regard, either.

Now, I know that Police work is hard.  I know it is a challenge.  I know that I (personally) would not have the skills to do it at all  well.  And I understand and accept the concept of being generous toward those who are doing a difficult job well, under difficult circumstances.  But there is the important caveat there - that they are doing the job well.  So I am no longer instinctively sympathetic to the Police, because they are not doing that job well.

Sometime, indeed, I wonder if we would be better off without them.  I wonder if it would be cheaper to employ a bodyguard to follow my wife and children, and to have a solid bar and handgun for myself.  I wonder if that might start to communicate to our criminals what "restorative justice" really means.

Returning to PC Mark Andrews, I remain of the view that the woman was in his care.  He was responsible for her.  The corollary of having the power of arrest, having the power to force us to come back to the station with them, is that once they do, the Police are responsible for us and our wellbeing.  If we suffer an accident that is not clearly self-inflicted, then responsibility for that lies with the Officer concerned.  Mark Andrews has given another significant boost to my now instinctive distrust of the Police.  

Gadget concludes that one of the reasons for being pleased is that
"the handwringers will go absolutely orbital, which will be fun to see"
This is not a swear blog, so you will not be treated to my reaction to being called a handwringer, or to hearing that my outrage at the police inflicting avoidable injuries to the public in their care is "fun".

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

An open letter to Paul Lawton

Paul Lawton is the MD of Opal Telecom Limited, my current Internet Service Provider.  This is the letter that I have just sent to him, detailing the less than satisfactory service that I have received from his company.  The only editing has been to remove my personal details such as telephone numbers, logins etc.

If I receive a reply, I will publish it here.  If I do not, Opal will cease to be my ISP.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dear Mr Lawton,

Broadband Service - Telephone Number *******

I am contacting you directly because I am not happy with the manner in which your company have dealt with my account, and because I assume that you would like to hear directly from me so that you can take the necessary steps to improve your company's service; I doubt that I am alone.  I would also like to improve the Internet service that I receive, but that is only a secondary reason as I can achieve this by contracting with a different ISP.

I am writing to you at the address for Opal Telecom Limited, because this is the only address that you have elected to give to Companies House, and I therefore infer that you are able to receive personal letters via this address.  I expect this letter to be conveyed to you, as I am writing to you personally in your capacity as a director of Opal Telecom Limited at the address given by you for such correspondence.  

I should first point out that this letter is being published on my blog at, and a link has been placed via my Twitter feed at  I will of course publish your response, unless you raise a valid objection to this.

I am a former Pipex customer, whose custom you acquired when the Pipex business was merged into yours.  I am, indeed, a longstanding Pipex customer; my first contract with them was for a dialup service sometime around 1997 or so.  In about 2000 or 2001 I moved to a 500k broadband service from Pipex, and re-appointed them when I moved house in 2004.  Later, Pipex unilaterally upgraded my 500k service to a 1Mb service, and subsequently upgraded this further to a 2Mb service.

So, as you can see, I am more than willing to remain with a supplier when I feel that their service is of a high quality at a reasonable price.  Nevertheless, I am currently considering moving away from Opal, for reasons that I will explain.

The Transfer from Pipex

I have the original flyer that was posted to me with your letter of 19 February 2010 after you had acquired Pipex.  It stated that "everything stays the same" and, indeed, that I would "receive a more resilient service offering faster broadband speeds".  I took this to mean that neither the level of service that I would receive nor the price that I was paying would change as a result of the transfer of my account (unless I opted for a new Opal package).  Your letter also stated that Opal would be looking at the accounts of all the ex-Pipex customers to see if a different Opal package would suit them better.

I was very pleased to see this.  I had been aware for some time that my 2Mb Pipex service was becoming uncompetitive, and was beginning to think that I ought to look at alternatives.  The news that you would, in effect, be doing this for me was re-assuring.  I decided to put this issue onto my mental back-burner and wait to hear from you.

That was a mistake.  I have not yet been contacted by your company with a suggestion of a better Opal package.  Instead, you have left me on the old Pipex package, which is (as I can prove, see later) overpriced and under-performing.

Worse, you have not kept me on the same level of service.  Pipex had been providing me with a 2Mb service, but you downgraded this to 1Mb without mentioning this to me.  I appreciate that my formal contract with Pipex referred to a 1Mb service, but Pipex had for some time been providing 2Mb as a concession - in the apparent knowledge that their 1Mb service was overpriced.  Now, you may say in your defence that you maintained for me the level of service that Pipex were contractually bound to provide me, and on that specific point you would be correct.  However, that was not the tone of the promise made to me, and as your customer I was disappointed when I noticed this.

So, in my opinion, you did not meet either of the promises that you made when you took me on as a customer.

Fault Handling

About six weeks ago, a fault started to develop in our broadband service.  The fault has now been diagnosed - it appears to have stemmed from incorrect wiring of the telephone cables within our house when BT originally installed the line for the previous owners.  So, therefore, no blame whatsoever for the fault lies at the door of your company.  Your company did, however, delay the resolution of the fault and, in fact, made our service worse during and for some time after it was rectified.

Initially, the fault was a very intermittent one - the broadband signal would be lost for maybe 20 minutes, before returning for the next few days.  This was merely tiresome.

Over time, the seriousness of the problem grew; eventually the signal would spend more time down than up.  So I had to call your technical support line.  Typically, by the time I had run the gauntlet of the "Is your router plugged in?" questions that I accept you need to ask, one or other of the various tweaks tried by the technical support assistant would coincide with the signal returning.  At that point, the problem would be declared solved.

Sadly, it was not and would return later.  I eventually insisted to your technical support staff that the problem needed proper investigation.  They agreed to send an engineer, and a visit was booked for a few days later.  When he arrived, his reaction was to drop us from a 1Mb to a 500k service as the line was clearly having difficulty sustaining a 1Mb connection.  This despite the fact that the line had previously sustained 2Mb.  After doing so, a connection was (as usual) obtained, and the engineer made to leave.  My wife stopped him leaving and, as she expected, the connection promptly dropped after a few minutes use.  Eventually, he had to admit that a BT engineer was needed.

I shall not detail my dissatisfaction with BT.  We do not have time.  However, within an hour or so of work by the BT engineer, he had identified a fault in the wiring, corrected this, and our signal had returned.

The signal that returned was of course a 500k signal, not the 2Mb signal that I have been paying for, because your engineer's limitation was still present.  It took a further 4 days and three separate requests to your technical support staff to remove this, leaving me once again with half the level of service that Pipex had been providing.  Please forgive me if I am not exactly overwhelmed with this result.

It is my opinion that your staff were overly keen to declare the problem solved, and left us unassisted for several weeks while the problem actually grew worse.  The reluctance of your company to accept that an intermittent fault required more thorough investigation left us without an effective Internet service for several weeks, causing us severe disruption.

Your Customer Service Staff

During the extensive fault-finding process, I spoke to your Customer Service staff in order to try and deal with the overpriced and underperforming nature of the service that you have been providing.  The results were not exactly encouraging.  The member of staff to whom I spoke was helpful and polite, but he did not have the necessary authority and had been provided with a script that was not helpful.

I asked why my service was so unreliable and whether a better service could be provided.  His opinion was that the unreliability was due to my service being hosted via older Pipex servers and that a move to new Opal servers would help immeasurably, This would also allow me to move to the 3.5Mb service that (in his opinion) my line could sustain, at a price some 25% cheaper that I am currently paying.  This does of course prove that my current service is overpriced and underperforming.  

I asked whether this move would solve my reliability problems.  In his opinion, it would.  I asked whether it could be done quickly.  He told me that if I agreed there and then, the transfer could be made within days.  I was very tempted.

However, with (I admit) a degree of suspicion, I asked whether any other terms of my agreement with you would change.  At this point, he admitted that a new contract would be required.  I asked that this would mean.

He explained that it would have mean a minimum 24 month agreement.  Two years.

At this point, I became a little annoyed.  I pointed out that tying myself to a company that had been providing an overpriced, under-performing service that had also been extremely unreliable for some time was not exactly a tempting prospect.  I pointed out that I had been a Pipex customer for over ten years, that you had promised to look at my account several months ago but had not, and that I expected better.  I pointed out that with BT Infinity due to arrive in my area within months, there was simply no way that I would accept a two year tie and that you would therefore lose the account.   I pointed out that if Opal could provide a reliable, fast, and economically priced service, then I would have no need to leave you, even for BT Infinity.  Therefore, if he could remove that tie or at least reduce it dramatically, Opal stood a chance of keeping my custom. That remains the case.

He said that he did no have the authority to do so, but would speak to someone who did, and that I would hear further from Opal.  That was a few weeks ago.  I have not heard from your staff.

Now, I know that much more reasonable terms are available.  BE Unlimited, for example, can offer exactly the same for a mere one year tie, or the same speed at a slightly higher cost for only a 3 month tie.

Interestingly, better terms that I was offered are available from ... Opal itself.  Your website offers the same terms, for £2.50 per month less than your customer services team offered me.  Are these terms, in the immortal phrase, for "Brand new customers only"?

So, as you can see, I feel that I have been let down badly by your firm.  I await your comments.  If you would like to retain my custom, then I also await your proposal.

Yours, etc...

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Update 18th Nov:

An interesting email received today:

...together with a request for my account details.  Progress?  Maybe.  Will keep you up to date.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Update 19th Nov:

The Head of Customer Services from Opal has just called.

With regard to the technical side of my line, arrangements are now in place to gradually up the speed of my line in 0.5Mb steps until we find the best speed it can cope with.  To avoid having to go through the call centre every time, I will also be getting a direct contact at Opal's technical centre.

In relation to the customer services issue, she is investigating.  In the meantime, my bill is dropping commensurate with the speed that I am getting.

So far, so good...

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Update 29th Nov:

Opal have been investigating the best speed that my line can cope with.  To their credit, they seem to have been pretty through about this.  They have however concluded that 1M is the fastest that it can currently cope with :-(

Opal have however suggested that we try my other line into the house.  Now, that is a little complex in that it has extensions that are dotted around in places that are inconvenient for the PCs.  However, we could ask BT to use the cabling for the second line as an extension to that line ... but that would cut off the only line that is currently giving me broadband.  Opal have therefore agreed to put broadband onto the other line, temporarily, to see if it is any better.  If it is, then we will switch.  If not, I'll just have to settle for 1M (until BT Infinity arrives...).

This is very co-operative indeed of Opal, it should be said.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Update 2 Feb 2011:

Well, the alternative phone line was no better.  So we are back to 1M on the original line, but at least it is stable.  Opal have also agreed a refund in respect of the period when I was effectively without any form of reliable service, and a fair rate for the slowish speed that I am now getting.  BT Infinity will be here (allegedly) in two months, at which point I will be off like a shot.  

My opinion now that it is finished?  Once I got in touch with their head of customer care, things went very well and were done very efficiently.  The handling of my account from that point on reflected on Opal with credit.  It is just a shame that it took a minor internet campaign to get me there.  Given the amount I was paying, I'd expect that kind of service to be available to al their customers, not just those that kick up an almighty fuss in public.  Prior to then, I was subject on the one hand to aggressive sales staff who were quite happy to spin me a line and avoid difficult questions to get me to sign up, and on the other to support call handlers whose script was designed to fob me off at minimum cost and make me think the problem was with my equipment.  

Which is a shame.  They are clearly capable of better.  There are skilled, able and helpful people working there.  But there is also a layer of call centre staff seemingly designed to keep you away from them.  My advice to Opal customers with a problem?  Get yourself a blog and a twitter feed (if you can get online, that is).

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A one-tracked (Socialist) mind?

There's a program on BBC2 now, describing Scotland's landscape.  The presenter spent the first half describing the appalling mismanagement of Scots forests by private landowners, bemoaning the lack of any government control.  Apparently, we would have won the first world war much more quickly had the State controlled Scotland's forests.

Now, he's describing the incompetence of the Forestry Commission during the post-WW2 period...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Let's blow them all sky high

Dungeekin, on the subject of the Twitter Joke Trial:
I believe, in fact, that the people I'd like to blow sky-high the most right now are in the Crown Prosecution Service. I'd also like to set fire to the humourless fuckwits in Greater Manchester Police who even put a file forward to the CPS, and I have special plans involving boiling oil and a half-dozen rabid weasels for the moron so-called Judge who upheld the 'conviction' today.
Damn right. I am so angry.  So this is the result of Labour's anti-terror laws, put in place to protect us?  Dangerous terrorists have to be let out of jail, Abu Hamza has to stay here and cannot be deported, but Paul Chambers is guilty?

Monday, 8 November 2010

Customer Service means Servicing the Customer

We're trying to get BT in to sort out the line that provides our broadband. They allow you to book "am" or "pm".

The "am" slot is defined as anywhere between 8 and 1. The "pm" slot is anywhere between 1 and 6.

Now, one of the benefits of having a wife at home is meant to be that here is someone around to deal with this kind of thing, so I do not need to book a day off for it.

What I want to know is, have any of the BT management (a) ever had to care for a child of school age or (b) ever been to school?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Surely they could have done better?

Great excitement regarding the printer cartridge bombs:
One of the two parcel bombs intercepted last week after being sent from Yemen was defused 17 minutes before it was due to go off, France's Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has said.
17 minutes??

Seventeen whole minutes?

Oh really. We all know you're not meant to defuse it until the timer clicks to 00:00:01.

(pointed out by a colleague who sits nearby...and who reads this blog...)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Human Wrongs

I've said before now that there is an important element missing in Human Rights law; that of fairness.  All that is needed is a simple rule that no-one may rely on a human right to defend themselves from something which necessarily flows from their denial of a human right to another.

Thus, the killer of Philip Lawrence relied on his right to a family life to demand that he stay in the UK and not be deported.  Yet he was facing deportation precisely because he had killed a father and husband, because he had denied a family life to that wife and those children.

The same applies to prisoners who think they should be able to vote.  They claim that voting is an essential part of their life in society, yet they chose to exclude themselves from that very same society by their actions.  It is part and parcel of their punishment that we exclude them from society, and that includes loss of their vote.  If they wish to retain a vote, all they need to do is stop committing crimes.

This applies despite arguments such as the possibility of miscarriage of justice, or the ever-expanding range of criminal offences.  Both result in possible hardships, but the solution is to solve those separate issues - not to assume that most criminals are innocent of a non-crime and recoil from punishing any.

It is not just me that is of this view, either.  I find, in amazement, that I am able to cite with approval a comment by a Labour MP.  Relish the moment; it is rare indeed.  Here is Tom Harris's quite excellent comment:
Shocking, isn't it, that prisoners' human right to spend time with their families is compromised by having to spend time in jail?

I'll end with some context. Also from Tom Harris:
The latest appeal on behalf of prisoners' right to vote was by a man who raped and murdered his niece.
That's the kind of person we are trying to help, here.  Don't forget that.  When we have our endless debates about crime and punishment, we often note just how hard it is to get a prison sentence in this country.  These are the people whose actions met even this high threshold.

So, if the EU demands that we enact a law that is so obviously wrong, it is time to leave.

The wages of Sin?

Just a quick thought.  I may have raised this before now.

We are used to the concept of "sin taxes" - duties on beer, wine, tobacco, petrol and so on, justified by the argument that they dissuade people from doing things that The State In Its Infinite Wisdom knows are not good for us.  Things that the State says are bad.  Things that we should not do.

So where does that leave the 40% and 50% tax bands?

Is this not a message to the populace that The State does not want you to be a high earner?