How to fight back against the phone frauds

I received an automated call a few minutes ago from Palm Travel – despite being on the Telephone Preference Service, which means I shouldn’t get marketing calls – and they had some good news for me. They’ve been trying to get hold of me for ages, because someone in my household entered a prize draw last year, and won! So I’ve definitely got a holiday in Florida or £5K in cash. Just call this number!

Of course, it’s a load of crap; the number is an 0906 number, which means it’s likely to cost around £1.50 per minute and last for some time. It’s a particularly unpleasant stunt because people obviously do call the premium rate numbers; if they didn’t, nobody would bother with the scams.

The thing is, you can fight back. The telecoms watchdogs can and do fine companies that do this kind of stuff, and you can click here to file a complaint online. Firms have been fined tens of thousands of pounds for phone spam, so it’s definitely worth doing.

The next time you get one of these calls, take a note of the company name and the number it wants you to call, then follow the above link to grass them up. If you can find out more with a quick Google then by all means do so – the more information you can provide, the easier the investigation will be; then, if you’re a member of the Telephone Preference Service, you can grass them up again, which could lead to a further £5,000 fine.

Update: there’s a good article detailing your options with nuisance calls here.

Website bloody website (or: How to disgruntle an adoring fan)

I didn’t go to see U2 on their last tour, because I felt the ticket prices were taking the piss; this time round, it seems the prices are even higher. According to U2log.com, Glaswegian fans are apparently expected to shell out £85 for general admission tickets [edit, 27 Jan: Glasgow’s Evening Times reports that the cheapest tickets aren’t quite that bad, but they’re a still-scary £55 including booking fee]. I’m neither rich nor a hardcore fan, so I’ve no intention of going.

Of course, U2 can charge as much as they like and hardcore fans *will* go, because the band has one of the most loyal groups of fans in the world. But if you thought the ticket prices were a clear example of hardcore fan abuse, the recent treatment of U2.com members is even worse.

In December, the U2.com site added a subscribers-only section. Members of the U2 fanclub Propaganda, which has been around since The Edge had hair, were promised a discount. They didn’t get one. According to U2log.com:

Former subscribers of Propaganda, U2’s official magazine, who were told they’d receive a 50% discount never got it and got signed up for a full $40 membership. Others got charged twice. (Fanfire, the company hired by U2 to deal with their webshop and memberships, is reportedly now successfully addressing these issues.)

The big attraction of membership was priority access to concert tickets, which sell out in seconds whenever U2 announce a tour. By paying for the site subscription, fans were told, they’d get priority access to tickets before the rest of the world could buy any, and of course the tickets available to fans would be the best seats in the house.

So what happened when the tickets went on sale? U2log again:

European sales [go] belly up pretty much straight away. U2.com members who paid $40 for their priority ticketing and [were] “guaranteed the best seat in the house” find out their presale codes are rendered invalid thanks to timeouts on the Ticketmaster sites. Ticketmaster initially reactivates some codes, but apparently gives up at some stage (number of emails too overwhelming?).

Six hours later, tickets for gigs on the East Coast of the United States go on sale. This initially seems to be going more smoothly, until it becomes clear there are practically NO General Admission tickets available at all, and the tickets that do become available are nosebleed seats at about $150 or more a pop. Some are even situated BEHIND the stage.

To make matters worse, Ticketmaster changes the floorchart while the sale is going on, so that people who think they’ve got a good view now end up having paid $300 for seats so far removed from the stage they’ll need binoculars.

Each following hour is marked by U2.com downtime from there on, and more disappointed fans around America. When the West Coast of the United States goes on sale, including the tour opener San Diego, the Ticketmaster site goes completely belly up. Users that have placed orders get Server Configuration errors when they want to finalise their sale.

The presale to the only Canadian date, Vancouver, seems to have been cancelled altogether without anyone getting ANY detail as to why. So far there has been no information forthcoming concerning this issue.

Pretty much immediately after each presale, tickets start appearing on Ebay at exuberant prices (over $1000) for all shows.

Ticketmaster and U2.com have apologised, which is nice of them, but the whole sorry saga is a classic example of how to ruin the goodwill of fans. Instead of easy access to tickets and discounts on the price or at least the booking fee – which is what they believed they were paying their membership fees for – the fans who could actually locate tickets found bad seats at high prices and were beaten to the punch by eBay scalpers. Unsurprisingly, a significant number of fans are extremely unhappy about paying a membership fee to U2.com for priority ticket booking that was nothing of the sort.

Of course, U2 themselves didn’t do this – but the people acting on their behalf were responsible for the cock-up, and if the band has any sense then they’ll strap the lot of ’em to a giant mechanical arse-kicking machine, film it and put the footage on U2.com. Tomorrow.

More at An Open Letter to U2 and U2log.com.

[via No Rock N Roll Fun]

Update, 7 February

As No Rock reports, U2 drummer Larry Mullen has written an apology to fans:

“There was a mess up in the way the tickets were distributed through U2.com for the Vertigo pre-sale. Some of it was beyond our control, but some of it wasn’t” Mullen writes at u2.com.

“I am now in the process of figuring out a way of distributing the tickets for our intended return to North America in the fall” Mullen says. “The only fair way of doing this, is to give U2 Propaganda members, who are now U2.com members, priority in the queue”.

“After that, people will be given priority in the order in which they joined. Many people who joined U2.com and didn’t get tickets are understandably angry. They now have the option to get a full refund of their subscription fee.

“The idea that our long-time U2 fans and scalpers competed for U2 tickets through our own web site is appalling to me. I want to apologise to you who have suffered that.

“If your U2.com pre-sale experience has left you disappointed, I hope this will go some way towards reassuring you of our total commitment to our audience.”

No smoke without fired

A US firm has sacked four employees who refused to take an ‘are you a smoker’ test. From 1 January, Weyco’s policy was that it would no longer employ smokers, even if those smokers only indulged in their spare time. As the firm explains:

While trying to be sensitive to smokers’ personal predicament, we’re also saying, “You can choose to smoke after Jan. 1, but if so, you’ll need to find other employment.”

The firm goes on to provide the usual justifications – smokers eat babies, worship Satan, that sort of thing – but of course, this is ultimately about money. US firms provide healthcare for their employees, and the cost of such healthcare is higher for employees who smoke.

we also get asked: “What will companies ban next – unhealthy eating, drinking, and sexual behavior?”

The answer is, of course, no. But not, it seems, because the firm doesn’t want to fire people for those reasons:

federal law protects people with conditions such as obesity, alcoholism and AIDS.

Is it just me, or does the tone of that statement sound rather disappointed?

We’ll see more such cases, because the healthcare issue – increased costs for anyone who doesn’t live a pure and rather dull life – positively encourages firms to discriminate against certain groups of people such as smokers or drinkers, even if those activities have no bearing whatsoever on their ability to work, their productivity or their attendance.

But firms don’t need the excuse of increased healthcare costs to enforce the boss’s standards on their employees’ personal lives; they’re keen to do it anyway. People have been fired because of their sexuality, because they failed a drug test – does it really matter if an accountant smoked a few joints at the weekend? Fair enough if he runs out of a board meeting screaming “Spiders! Spiders! Aaaaagh!”, but that’s pretty unlikely. Although it would be funny – or because the firm wanted to portray a younger image and got rid of everyone over 40.

The counter-argument goes something like this: the employer should be free to hire or reject whoever they want; after all, they’ve built the business up from scratch and it’s nobody’s business but their own who they hire. And while I’ve some sympathy with that argument, the problem is a wider one. If one firm won’t hire smokers, people who smoke could work elsewhere; if most firms won’t hire smokers – something of a trend in the US – then people are being excluded from the labour market for indulging in a legal activity, in their spare time. The increased healthcare costs argument doesn’t cut it, because employers could pass on the extra costs to the smokers; if the smokers aren’t willing to bin the cigs, then they should pay the extra premiums. But it seems that firms would rather dictate their employees’ lifestyles than treat people fairly.

The other counter-argument is that statistically, smokers are more likely to die young, or to develop nasty illnesses in later life. But if that’s a valid reason to sack people, what’s to stop firms discriminating against people with duff genes? Women whose mothers contracted breast cancer are statistically more likely to contract breast cancer themselves; should employers be allowed to discriminate against those women because statistically, they’re more likely to die young or need extensive time off work for chemotherapy and radiotherapy? What about people with a genetic predisposition to develop congenital heart failure, to develop mental illness, or to develop degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons or MS? After all, why should a firm invest time and money in recruitment, training and staff development if the employee is likely to repay that investment by getting sick or going mad?

If the employees don’t smoke at work and they don’t slack off at work then it’s none of their employer’s damn business. If they’re persistently absent or don’t pull their weight, then those are valid reasons to discipline them; to refuse to hire smokers in the first place because they might be absent or might not pull their weight is prejudice. Employers’ control over their employees’ lives should stop at the end of the shift.

There’s an interesting – and very heated – conversation about this on MetaFilter.

Join the CTSOIABTAGS

CTSOIABTAGS? I hear you cry. Yes, I reply. CTSOIABTAGS: the Campaign To Stamp Out Idiotic Acronyms Because Things Are Getting Silly.

Organisations do tend to play fast and loose with acronyms, skipping words or combining them so that the result is a recognisable word rather than an Eastern European surname, but this one – a real example, from Nuffield Hospital in Glasgow – is the worst I’ve ever seen:

Good health
Lasts
A lifetime so
Screening can
Give you the
Opportunity to be a
Well person

The Nuffield says that little lot becomes GLASGOW – when of course, the correct acronym would be GHLALSSCGYTOTBAWP.

File sharing: the opera

On the face of it, Jerry Springer: The Opera and Kazaa don’t have much in common. But according to The Inquirer, religious groups are on another “let’s ban stuff” crusade, and this time they want to crack down on file sharing networks.

The Christian Coalition, the Concerned Women for America, and Morality in Media have called for the Supreme Court to crack down on file sharing because it could lead to a “proliferation of anonymous, decentralized [sic], unfiltered, and untraceable peer-to-peer networks that facilitate crimes against children and that frustrate law enforcement efforts to detect and investigate these crimes.”

At the heart of the case is the Sony videocassette decision which allowed countless numbers of people to copy television programmes onto videos. It removed liability from companies that produced the tapes and established the concept of fair use.

Hollywood has tried for aeons to get this overturned and force everyone to buy copies of films and television programmes. Now it is applying the same arguments it did for the videos and against file-sharing.

First paragraph edited after posting because it didn’t make any sense.

A bright idea?

David emails me with a link to The Virtual Laser Keyboard, a nifty little device that projects a keyboard onto any surface so you can type data into your phone or PDA. As he puts it in his usual eloquent style:

Lasers are, by definition, cool.

He’s got a point: the virtual keyboard is a very clever, if rather expensive, gadget. However, I’m not convinced it’s a good idea.

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury in my hands, wrists and forearms, which is a fancy way of saying that too much time on the computer has knackered my arms. And because of that, the Virtual Laser Keyboard is a really, really bad idea for me.

The problem is one of cushioning: part of my RSI is caused by the combination of very, very fast typing speeds and my tendency to hammer the keys with my big meaty fingers. I’ve found that some keyboards are better than others, so for example laptops don’t hurt as much as desktop keyboards do, and as a result I’ve got a laptop-style keyboard (a MacAlly IceKey) for everyday work. A desk doesn’t have any cushioning at all, and I can guarantee that within ten minutes of using a laser keyboard, I’d be in agony.

I don’t know about any warnings on the packaging, but certainly there’s no mention of RSI on the Virtual Laser Keyboard web site; it’d be nice if the manufacturers warned users that prolonged keyboard use can be a factor in RSI, and that hammering away on a hard surface increases that risk. Ultimately, though, it’s a fancy gadget rather than a keyboard replacement – but if you get one, make sure you don’t use it for long periods of time.

Update, 7.30pm

Now this is much more like it. [via MetaFilter]

How many iTunes songs has Apple sold?

The Unofficial Apple Weblog notes that the number of iTunes downloads has reached 250 million. However, the weblog makes its most interesting point in a throwaway comment:

I feel that I should point out that Apple hasn’t broken out paid tracks vs. free tracks (i.e. those from the Pepsi promotion or the weekly download)

If Apple has sold all those songs, then while it’s an impressive result it’s still a drop in the ocean: 250 million songs among 10 million iPods works out as just 25 tracks per iPod – one-tenth of an iPod shuffle. As iTunes per iPod points out, that means iPod owners are still getting the overwhelming majority of their music from other sources, such as their existing CD collection or from file sharing networks. Either that, or they’ve been mugged and had their iPods stolen before they could fill them.

If the weblog’s right and Apple’s including freebies, then the number of purchased tracks per punter drops considerably. The original Pepsi promotion promised to give away 100 million downloads for free, so if it hit the target (which I doubt – I don’t think they gave away even one-tenth of that amount – but bear with me here) then the number of paid downloads immediately drops to 150 million – 15 tracks per iPod, or roughly one CD’s worth of music. And the free weekly downloads will reduce that figure further.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the Apple press release is that it’s actually sold a quarter of a billion iTunes tracks, but it doesn’t really matter which is true: freebies or no freebies, the point is that Apple has sold either one or two CDs’ worth of music to iPod owners, who by their very nature are more into music than the average man on the street. Selling a CD or two to ten million people is pretty good going, but 10 million or 20 million CDs in two years is still a drop in the ocean. Last year alone, UK and US record labels shifted 542 million CD albums. That means digital music is growing, but reports of the death of the CD are still rather premature.

I’m going slightly mad

I’m making pizza for dinner – proper, home-made pizza rather than a ready-made one – and my subconscious seems to find the prospect very exciting. Presumably that’s why it invented the most annoying advertising jingle of all time and made me wake up with it on a constant loop in my head:

Pizza base!
Pizza base!
La la la la!
Pizza base!

Who owns your record collection?

The current issue of PC Plus includes a feature by yours truly on the subject of Digital Rights Management technology; the basic argument of the feature is that DRM isn’t evil in itself, but rights owners – record companies, film studios and so on – find it hard to resist the temptation to abuse DRM. For example, in a case that popped up after the article went to print, TV networks wanted to use DRM to limit the use of personal video recording equipment; they wanted your Tivo to delete any stored episodes of Six Feet Under when the next episode aired. I’m quite proud of it and of course, PC Plus is a top magazine, so you should run to the newsagent and buy a copy immediately ;-)

One of the things I like about PC Plus is that when I write an article, I tend to get emails from readers with strong opinions and interesting perspectives; the following message, from CHG, is no exception and I’ve reprinted it here (with the author’s permission).

I think that what is happening with DRM is both immoral and bad for the industry. Where would the industrial revolution have got in the 19th century if we hadn’t had standards? It is bad enough having 4 incompatible types of light fitting, and that’s without counting strip lights. Imagine having to buy a new set of spanners every time you bought nuts and bolts from a new supplier. Image Vinyl Records that you had to have a different make of record player to match each record label (as you mentioned), or only being allowed by buy petrol from Ford Garages if you had a Ford car. This is where the stupid greedy fat cats in suits are trying to take us – the uncreative types. The issue of region coding DVDs typifies what is wrong with the media industry.

I like the analogy of buying an electric drill. Imagine my reaction if I got home only to find that it would only work if I bought my electricity and drill bits from that manufacturer. If I buy a drill, I just expect it to work. I don’t want to read a complicated operator’s manual, it has to work on any electrical supply, accommodate standard drill bits, and be reliable. Other members of my family can use it, and I can even lend it, at my risk, to my neighbour for a job. If after much use it fails, but I feel it gave me value for money, I’ll be happy to buy a replacement from the same manufacturer, otherwise I’ll go elsewhere. The
only limit is that I cannot easily make illegal copies and sell them, and if I did I’d expect the law to get me.

Now, can I treat software or music the same way? I did not ask for all these stupid music formats, or operating systems, I just want to buy software and music in a merchantable form that will not degrade over time, and expect both the right and ability to play it on whatever music playing device I have, both now and in the future (I program in Java for that reason). That’s fair. I am after all only asking for the same rights as I’ve had from books all my life. I would not tolerate each publisher inventing their own alphabets or vocabularies, and they’d go bust very quickly. Secondly, I don’t expect manufacturers to deliberately corrupt products in such ways that they play less reliably or not at all. If I buy a book written in English in the UK, I still expect to be able to read it on a beach in Florida, but can the same be said for a DVD?

We are talking about fundamental principles, and the issues about why so many countries adopted the metric system.

There are two types of piracy. There’s the commercial crooks who deserve to be caught, and then there’s the members of the public. They know that when they buy music, only pennies get given to the original creators of the artistic work, and that most gets taken by greedy companies which are top heavy with non-creative clowns, coupled with the shops that for most of the week stand empty running up costs. If artists were any good, they would have the confidence to completely bypass the music companies, allow reasonable cost downloads, and in turn make a much bigger return on each copy sold. Everyone would be happy. We need open standards. Incidentally, every CD I have is legal, but I still know I’m being ripped off.

As it happens, I’m a software developer, and I take a pragmatic view to licensing. My aim is to charge a fair and affordable fee, and provide incentives for registered legitimate users, and to freely publish my file formats. If customers think your prices are a rip-off, then you are just encouraging piracy, since the customers will feel less guilty if they think you are trying to cheat them. I’d have to double the cost of the software in order to supply dongles with every copy, while at the same time annoying customers, and selling fewer copies; but the dongle supplier would get rich. If the software is no good, even the pirates won’t copy it, but if users like it and find it useful, you will sell more copies, and some who started off with illegal copies may well wish to upgrade.

Given the low cost of manufacture, as against original development and continuing support, what is a fair price for an office suite, an operating system, or a photo editing program? At present different manufacturers clearly have very different ideas on that. How big are their development teams as against their marketing/management teams?

I have looked hard for market research on prices vs piracy levels, but I’m not aware of anyone having bothered to do any, since that is not the way the “Suits” think.

It is about time Joe Public stood up against the fat cats and stopped buying their products. They’d soon change then. The fundamental issue is: “If I’ve bought a product, I expect the ability to use it, now and in the future”. Surely if a manufacturer tries to block that right, I should in turn have the right to sue them.

Some interesting points there, and I’d appreciate your comments.