Category Archives: Anecdotage

Progress. At a price.

I was round my mate Geoff’s house the other day. He likes his gadgets, does Geoff. Old gadgety Geoff.

His latest was a Sonos sound system. Working via your home’s wi-fi, it lets you play music from your iTunes library and also from sources outside your house, such as Spotify and LastFM. The sound was deep and loud and rich, and the remote control was insanely easy to use. (This part was critical. Geoff’s previous foray into this area involved a system so complex that finding a song – any song – would take him ages standing in front of a huge screen and jabbing buttons on a paperback-sized remote control. The impenetrable operating instructions effectively excluded the rest of his family from ever selecting their own music.)

When I can next justify it financially, I thought, I’m going to get one of these Sonos systems.

Then last week I started noticing their ad campaign. No easy matter, as the adverts are discrete and understated virtually to the point of invisibility. But they got me looking for a stockist in Basingstoke, where I was working at the time, so the campaign worked to that extent.

The instore demonstration was pretty compelling. The guy showed me how the remote worked, talked me through the various systems and explained how to get the best out of it. Although my iTunes library probably wouldn’t be up to the job, he cautioned. Why ever not? Well, apparently when you import CDs to iTunes, it rips them at a less than optimal setting. For purposes of speed, I guess. For the least compression and hence the best quality, I would have to import all my CDs again on the Apple Lossless setting. Hmm.

Another thing that perplexed me was the set-up of the speaker. I belong to a generation conditioned by everyone from hi-fi mags to the Melody Maker to position speakers six to eight feet apart. That was the way to replicate a live performance and the best way to enjoy any stereo effects created in the studio. Mono? Pah!

How to listen to music

But here was a £350 system with only the one speaker. A backward step, surely? Not so, said the people at Sonos when I’d mentioned this very point on Twitter. Each Sonos system in fact included two speakers, left and right. You couldn’t separate them – separates are so last century – so the way to enjoy stereo sound was simply to buy two systems! You turn the left-hand channel off on one and place it to the right, and do the opposite with the other and bingo, stereo sound. (“You want to take a passenger on your motorcycle? No problem – just buy another motorcycle!”)

I thought about the number of times I actually sat down in the precise way recommended by speaker manufacturers and hi-fi buffs and realised that I didn’t any more. Not much, anyway. So the lack of true stereo might not be such a big deal after all. OK, I thought, I’ll take it. Just one problem – that store didn’t have one in stock in my choice of colour. (There are two: Apple white and Apple black.) But their Camberley store did have one. I got them to reserve it and headed back to the office.

During the afternoon, doubt started to creep in. £350 is quite a lot to pay for something which would involve me doing days and days worth of ripping. The ‘sound in every room’ sales schtick wasn’t that convincing either when I realised I pretty much had that already. And there was that whole back to mono thing. But on the other hand, the sound was truly amazing and the idea of using that chunky little remote control to summon up music from pretty much anywhere was  difficult to resist. So I made a deal with myself. If I get work for next week, I’ll buy it. If not, I won’t.

I checked my emails. Yay! I had work for the following week. A couple of days, anyway. So that evening found me in the Camberley hi-fi store, punching my PIN into the terminal and looking lovingly at the box of music that was about to be mine. I checked with the salesman. “It’s got the manual in there, I take it?” Manuals are a waste of paper, he glumly told me. There’ll be a CD-Rom in the box. I nodded. I prefer manuals. This idea that a manufacturing process involving polycarbonates and aluminium and a reading process that required a £500 computer and a semiconductor laser was somehow better than printing a little booklet was unconvincing.

“And the remote and everything?”

He shook his head. “There’s no remote. The remote is optional.”

That sounded odd. How am I meant to operate it without the remote? He told me it was done via an app on my iPhone, iPad, Android phone or a desktop interface. All very well for me, as I’m never far from my iPad. But Mrs Bravenewmalden doesn’t have any of those things. Well, she’s got a PC but there was no way she, or anyone else for that matter, would be prepared to sit down in front of a computer just to skip ‘Octopus’s Garden’.

“How  much extra is the remote control?”

What the salesman said next brought to a sudden end my brief flirtation with Sonos. “£280.” My jaw made a rich, room-filling sound as it crashed to the floor. No, that wasn’t a mistake. The remote represented 45% of the total cost of the system.

“So, that’s two motorcycles.Thank you sir. Now I suppose you’ll be wanting some handlebars, yes?”

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Filed under Anecdotage, Modern life is rubbish, Stuff

This is one weird way to buy a phone

A 'carphone' 'warehouse'.

My iPhone 3G has been getting very slow recently. It has to think about every action, much like a sluggish PC. Installing the latest operating system didn’t help. In fact I think that was a ruse by Apple to get all iPhone 3 users to upgrade to the latest model. And it worked. That’s why, a few weeks ago,  I found myself stepping into the local Carphone Warehouse.

The last time I was there was to buy my current iPhone and to switch networks from T-Mobile to O2. I remember the process being very quick and simple, leaving the store after around an hour clutching my new phone. The phone was great, the network less so. From Canary Wharf to Soho to Clapham Junction, there seemed to be vast swathes of London where the signal was weak or intermittent and where the 3G network may as well not have existed.

Hopefully, the combination of a new phone and a new network would provide me with the service I sort of expect for £35 a month.

It didn’t start well. Vodafone wanted to see various documents so that they could carry out a credit check. I had my driver’s licence and credit cards and business cards, but they were never going to be enough. The Carphone Warehouse sales guy said I’d need to bring in a bank statement or utility bill. For reasons of expediency,  I could email them.

So I went home, scanned in my driver’s licence and a bank statement and emailed them to the guy at the address he’d given me. The following weekend I returned to the store, looking forward to start playing with my new phone. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

“Vodafone have mislaid the documents I sent,” said the assistant. Apparently he’d received my email, printed the attachments, faxed them to Vodafone who’d promptly lost them. (I’m writing this in 2011, by the way, just in case seeing the word ‘fax’ makes you think that this is a blog from 1998.)

Thing is, I don’t think that straight when I’m cross. Otherwise I’d have asked him why he didn’t email the documents himself. Why he’d used a fax machine. Why, when he learned they’d gone missing, he didn’t simply send them again. Why he didn’t warn me against making a futile trip back to the shop. And why he gave me his hotmail address rather than a ‘guy@carphonewarehouse’ email address.

Instead, I made noises about hoping to get a better deal on the rental or the upfront cost as some sort of recompense for all the inconvenience I’d endured, and said I’d return the following week. My third visit.

This time, I rang the store before making the schlepp into Kingston. Just to be certain. That was the idea, anyway. In the event it was an utterly pointless precaution as I never managed to get through. My call was important to them, a recorded announcement kept assuring me, though clearly not so important that it would actually be answered. So I got on my bike and headed into K-town.

The store was surprisingly devoid of customers. The staff were milling about, chatting to one another. No sign of my guy. The manager was there, though, and he told me that the person I’d been dealing with had the day off.

“Perhaps you can help me, then.”

“Well, no, not really,” explained the manager. “You’ve been dealing with him. I don’t know anything about it. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Actually, I think ‘never’ works better for me.”

I must admit there was a swear before I walked out of the shop. But like I say, there were hardly any customers there to be offended.

So there we have it. A company engaged in the business of communications not answering phone calls. Not liaising with one another. Using fax machines. Encouraging their staff to give out personal email addresses. And one of Britain’s largest companies asking for private data to be transmitted via one of the most public platforms in existence.

I’ve packed letters off to both companies saying that they will be held jointly responsible if I become a victim of identity theft and I’ve also alerted the Information Commissioner’s Office. I’ve written this ranty blog. But I still don’t have a new phone, and now I’m not sure what to do  next.

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Ads from 21 years ago

At precisely 9.44pm on a hot and humid July 30th 1990, Georgia Mills took her first lungfuls of air in a maternity suite at St George’s Hospital, south London. Over the course of that busy weekend I made frequent trips to and from the hospital, was on the phone virtually non-stop and generally performed lots of new-dad duties.

I also found time to do something a bit unusual. I taped the day’s news onto the VHS recorder and gathered up a selection of Saturday’s newspapers. Then I stuffed them all into a thick black plastic bag, the kind photographers keep light-sensitive paper in, stuck a label on it saying ‘Do not open until 31st July 2011’, and hauled it up into the loft.

Fast forward to last Saturday evening and I’m in the garden with Georgia, her mum and younger sister. It’s Georgia’s 21st birthday and we’re drinking champagne while she opens cards and presents. Eventually she gets to the black bag and we all have a chance to peruse the contents.

There’s a Guardian, a Daily Star, a Daily Telegraph, an Express, Mirror and Sun. There’s also the VHS cassette and – I’d forgotten about this touch – all the congratulatory cards we’d received from friends, relatives and neighbours.

Had Georgia been born a few hours later the papers would have been of greater historical significance as they would have been full of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which kicked off the first Gulf War. As it was, the two parties were still having talks in Saudi Arabia aimed as resolving their crisis. This news occupied one column inch in the broadsheets (my, were they broad).

The main news in most of the papers was the peaceful resolution of a siege in  London’s ‘Tokyo Joe’ nightclub, although the Guardian went for ‘Trinidad gripped by chaos’.

I’m interested in this sort of stuff from a historical perspective. I especially enjoy reading the adverts. They’re a window into a world that can be strangely reassuring and utterly alien. Here’s a small selection, together with the front page of the Telegraph.

As a radio news bulletin, the front page alone would occupy more than 20 minutes of airtime.

Retro's nothing new, you know. Here's a retro ad for a fax machine, which is pleasingly ironic.

A rare colour ad. For £5,995 you got a stereo radio/cassette and 'special 'jazz' graphics'.

After 21 years, this is still very recognisably an ad for First Direct.

Whatever happened to Metro? Or Rover? Or the team responsible for this confection?

All that speed! All that power! To think, today's socks have about as much computing power

Finally, an ad from 1990 that you could easily run today without changing much.

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“You’re through to Lloyds TSB, how can we anger you today?”

If you’re going abroad and intend to use your debit or credit card, the banks advise that you tell them before you go. This is so that when their software detects a deviation from your normal spending pattern, they’ll know the reason.

They don’t advise you by phone or letter or in ads, of course. You won’t see it printed on your statement. In fact they keep the advice pretty much to themselves, until you get home and complain that your card was unaccountably refused when you tried to buy a rail ticket in Segovia, for example. That’s when they advise you.

Next time, they say, you should inform us when you intend to go abroad. Thanks a bunch, you say. But you remember the advice and, next time you’ve got an overseas trip coming up, you set about giving the bank a call. Which is what I did the other week.

You have a cunning plan. You just don’t know what it is yet

For the purposes of this story, let’s pretend you’re a criminal – go on, let’s – and you intend to defraud a bank using my credit card. In fact, let’s make it even more interesting by pretending that you’ve also got hold of me. You’re holding me in your evil lair, bound and helpless and ready to divulge all the security details of my credit card. This is, after all, the sort of scenario the banks must have in mind when they devise their stringent security procedures.

So. You’ve got me, you’ve got my card and you’ve got a phone. It isn’t strictly accurate to say you’ve also got the beginnings of a plan, because you haven’t. In fact, you haven’t a fucking clue how you’re going to go about defrauding the bank. This explains why you didn’t just walk into Currys and buy loads of things with plugs on the end of them or visit the nearest cashpoint armed with my PIN. Instead of these obvious options, you call the number on the back of the credit card. It’s entirely plausible that all sorts of frauds start that way. Isn’t it? LloydsTSB evidently thinks so.

Off to a bad start

You call the number and listen to the options, none of them being particularly appropriate to the scheme you haven’t hatched yet. In fact, the final option tells you that if you want to talk about your credit card, you have to call a different number entirely. Eh? So why wasn’t this the number featured on the back of the card? Never mind. You call this new number. You’re gonna get rich!

The master criminal gets to work

When the automated phone service asks you to key in the credit card number, you’re all prepared. Tap tap tap tap. Same with the security number. Tap tap tap. This is so easy! Then it asks you to key in my date of birth. You prod me with a stick. Ow! I tell you, and you key it in. A human comes to the phone and greets you by name.

“Hello Mr Newmalden, you’re through to LloydsTSB, how can I help you?”

You’re in! Time to enact the crime of the century.

“Hi there. Well it’s just that I’m going abroad soon, and I believe you advise customers to alert you beforehand.”

You idiot! Why the fuck did you say that? Call yourself a criminal? How on earth do you think saying that will make you any richer or buy you more stuff? It sounds like the single most implausible crime in the history of criminality. But that doesn’t stop it setting off an alarm in the call centre lady’s head. Ah, the old ‘I’m going abroad’ ruse. She won’t fall for that one too easily.

“I see. I’ll just have to run through a few security questions with you.”

What? More security? No matter. You get ready with the stick.

“Could you give me the third and fifth characters of your password, please?”

“Sure. The third and fifth characters of my password, you say?”

I blurt them out without the need for any prodding.

“It’s c and j”, you say. You’re driving a bulldozer through the bank’s so-called security!

“And are there any other account holders on this card?”

“Any other account holders?”

I shake my head.

“No.”

“OK. What was the last balance payment you made to the card?”

You repeat the question, and I tell you that I paid the entire balance off.

“He, I mean I paid the full amount”, you say.

“Yes, but what was the amount?”

“Er, the amount, let’s see…”

You prod me with the stick, but I don’t know the actual figure. I think it was around £700.

“It was about £700.”

“No! I want the ACTUAL AMOUNT!”

You prod, jab and thwack me with the stick, but it won’t help. I’m tied up in a master criminal’s secret lair, not sitting at my desk at home. You give up with me and resort to guesswork.

“£710? £714.28?”

“Incorrect. You have failed the security test. I cannot proceed with your request.”

Bank 1, Customer 0

Your fraudulent shoulders sag, your criminal spirits slump. This totally mad scheme to prise money out of my account through the expedient of pretending that you’re going abroad and, er, well, you hadn’t really thought any further than that, has come to nothing. You untie me and go back to your previous job as a procurement clerk in Thanet.

This, then, was the end result of my attempt to act on the advice that banks (quietly) give their customers about going on holiday. The thing is, there’s no way I could easily have answered that last question because I just don’t carry that sort of information around with me. Who does? But in the security-obsessed world inhabited by the mindless jobsworths who concoct such tests, this isn’t good enough.

The lady at the bank probably congratulated herself and the bank’s ‘robust’ security for thwarting yet another dastardly plot to commit a heinous crime, when all they did was piss a customer off.

Grrr.

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Cheeky clock

Years ago, I used to be sent direct mail by a promotional giftware company. They did things like personalised t-shirts, pens, key fobs and mouse mats. The idea was that I’d order 500 ballpoint pens, each bearing the message ‘I write better than this pen! Kevin Mills 012 345 6789’, and send them to my clients and prospects. I never bothered because, well, because of lots of reasons, the likely complete ineffectiveness of such a sales technique being perhaps the most compelling.

But in the nature of such things, they kept sending me direct mail, often including free samples with ‘your name or slogan here’ printed on them. Then one day they announced that they could also personalise wall clocks, and would I care for a free sample? This appealed to me. I actually needed a clock. I was never going to order dozens to send to my clients or prospects, as at the time I only had about three clients and, as now, no prospects *pathos face*. But the promotional company wasn’t to know that.

A free wallclock. With ‘my name or slogan’ on it. And with no intention of ever engaging with the promotions company beyond getting a freebie out of them. Suddenly it became obvious what message the clock should carry.

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Having one less digit in a digital age

Along with date of birth, height and occupation, there used to be a space on the old-style British passport that noted the bearer’s ‘distinguishing marks’, or signes particuliers. Most people didn’t have distinguishing marks, or in any case not distinguishing enough for the UK Passport Agency.

I’m sure many applicants struggled to think of something that would have separated them from the herds of run-of-the-terminal, undistinguished passport holders. ‘Endearing smile’, ‘freckle configuration reminiscent of Ursa Major’ or even ‘mammoth tits’ might have been put forward. Not good enough. These peoples’ passports carried the crushing word ‘none’.

I, though, did have a distinguishing mark. On my passport it stated ‘TOP JOINT, FOURTH FINGER, R.HAND MISSING’. My pride in this was almost enough to counter the bouts of hilarity whenever anyone saw my passport photo. Like middle names, passport photos are guaranteed to provoke mirth regardless of how ordinary they are.

My phalange shortfall

See? There’s nothing remotely amusing about this, my first-ever passport photo

So how did it come about, this 33.33% deficiency in the pinky department? Well, I lost the top of my little finger in a car door accident.

This explanation normally makes people grimace briefly, before they recover and say “well, at least it was quick. Clean break and all that.” Then I go on to explain that it wasn’t the result of a car door being closed, but being opened. Their expression changes once more.

The car in question was a 1950’s Ford Prefect (registration FBD 528). This wasn’t part of some classic car restoration project. It was the family car. Yes, I really am that old. But at the time, I was very young. Just turned three, in fact. I had two older brothers who sat in the rear of the car, while I had to sit on my mum’s lap in the front. (No seatbelts to get in the way back then.)

A Ford Prefect, the inspiration behind the eponymously-named character from HHGTTG

We had stopped off at a shop on the way back from a day out to pick up some shopping. I waited on the pavement for my mum to get in first. I was leaning against the car with my hand splayed out against the central door pillar. Then one of my brothers opened the back door. My fingers were caught between the door and the pillar; as he opened the door it slowly sliced off the ends of two fingers.

I believe I may have uttered some expression of astonishment.

My father: lawbreaker

My memories of the actual incident are largely derived from others’ testimony, but I do have a strong recollection of my dad breaking the speed limit for perhaps the first time in his life to get me to A&E as quickly as possible.

The subsequent operation to reattach my fingers was only a partial success. The top of my third finger hadn’t been completely severed and was stitched back more or less as good as new.

The pinky fared less well. Perhaps the surgeon was a bit mean with the stitches. Whatever the reason, I had to revisit the hospital a fortnight later for the fingertip to be permanently removed.

People rarely notice its absence. I can be friends with someone for years before they suddenly stare open-mouthed at my hand. Or I’m in one of those my-scar-is-bigger-than-your-scar pub conversations, and I have to think of something to trump their Glasgow smile, AK-47 exit wound or Great White leg injury. That’s when I nonchalantly raise my little finger to looks of general incredulity.

Spot the difference

Curiously, the people most likely to notice are those who themselves are short of a digit or two. I have no idea why this should be. I certainly don’t go round looking at people’s hands to see if they have their full complement of fingers.

Some disadvantages of little fingerlessness

  • Not being a world-class drummer like Terry Bozzio. The thick end of the drumstick sits just where my stump is. (I think that might be a unique sentence.) So when I hit the drums hard, it starts to hurt. I know Rick Allen of Def Leppard managed to continue playing after the amputation of his entire left arm, but that’s different. He had the advantage of being talented.
  • In cold weather, my little finger starts to feel cold before the rest of me. In fact it gets bloody cold. My mum, bless her, once knitted me a pair of gloves with a foreshortened little finger. Awww.
  • If I used all ten fingers to touch-type it would potentially reduce my overall speed by as much as 10%. Luckily I only use two fingers, which itself is 100% more than I use to play the piano.

P.S. The picture above this one was taken with the Mac’s built-in camera, which produces a reverse image. Hence the little finger appearing to be on my left hand.

P.P.S. I reserve the right to blog about stuff that’s personal to me. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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