A bunch of utter bankers

A few years ago there was a huge outcry when banks announced that they would start charging people for the use of cash machines. Critics pointed out – quite rightly – that such a move would penalise the poor, as most banks had closed their smaller, less profitable branches; as a result, the only way people who didn’t live on busy shopping streets could get their money was to use cash machines. Charging for cash machines after closing branches, some suggested, was akin to pissing down poor people’s backs and telling them that it’s raining. In the resulting storm of bad publicity, the banks changed their minds and withdrew their plans.

But you can’t keep a bunch of bankers down for long, and the banks have managed to come up with a scheme that’s much worse than their original plan of charging £1 per transaction. They’ve been cheerfully flogging off their cash machines (except the ones in city centres, naturally), to private operators. As The Times notes:

There are an estimated 20,000 fee-charging cash machines around the country billing customers anything from £1.50 to £5 for each transaction.

The number of fee-charging cash machines has soared by 40 per cent in the six months to September 30.

Last year, 65 per cent of new cash machines were fee charging.

The spin on this is that such machines have to charge, because they would not otherwise be viable. That’s complete and utter bollocks, because in many cases the fee-charging machines are replacing existing machines that have been perfectly viable up till now. For example, the Bank of Scotland has sold its machines in garages and convenience stores to a fee-charging independent operator, and other banks are following suit.

And it’s not as if these operators are truly independent of the banks, either. As Channel 4 news points out:

Last year the Royal Bank of Scotland acquired the largest operator of profit-making cash machines in the country

That’s the same Royal Bank of Scotland whose profits hit £7 billion earlier this year.

Make no mistake, this is big business: ATM fees already generate £60 million per year in the UK, and that figure will soar as more and more free machines disappear.

So the fix is in. First, the banks close branches and replace them with ATMs; then, they replace the ATMs with ones that charge fees. If people don’t complain too much, the next step will be to charge for their remaining ATMs on the grounds that everyone else is doing it, so why can’t they?

Tone deaf

Back when I had a proper job, I used to work in the sunny Scottish seaside town of Ayr. I’d usually go for a wander around the town during my lunch break and without fail, I’d see the same busker every day. He was a blind chap who played classic oldies and the odd chart hit on a ridiculously large keyboard.

As much as I’d like to be politically correct here, I have to be honest: he was rubbish. Really rubbish. As in “no musical talent” rubbish. Even his guide dog looked pained as he slammed his meaty fists onto the keyboard, a technique that achieved a success rate of approximately 50% and which resulted in something that sounded like Stevie Wonder being hit with spanners.

Over the years I’ve occasionally wondered what he’s up to, and whether he’s still assaulting the ears of Ayr’s lunchtime shoppers. But it seems that he’s moved on to greater things: as I flicked through the various music channels on TV last night and saw advert after advert for mobile phone services, it’s become crystal clear that he’s moved into the polyphonic ringtone industry.

Have you *heard* those ads? You too can have a version of Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” played by a torso! Or you could have U2’s “Vertigo”, recorded by a small girl repeatedly smashing a Bontempi organ into her face! Or perhaps you prefer Eminem? Then why not get “Lose It”, as performed by a giraffe playing a Kazoo?

Perhaps it’s my age – I turn 32 on Friday – but as long as I live, I will never, ever understand the appeal of ringtones. Given that at 80p per track I reckon legal music downloads are overpriced, the fact that teenagers are willing to pay £3 for thirty seconds of music, played by someone who’s never heard the record and whose relationship to music is as close as my relationship to Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst and Kylie Minogue, can only mean one thing: young people are stupid.

Should businesses blog?

I’m putting together a story about blogging for UK businesses, and I’d be interested in people’s opinions on the subject. Do you think firms – such as online shops, small firms, whatever – should be blogging, or would their time be better spent concentrating on the basics such as price, decent customer service and so on? Have you ever chosen a product based on what bloggers have said about it – or decided against a product because of bad word of mouth among bloggers? Would you trust a firm’s own weblog, or would you assume that everything’s being written under the harsh glare of PR types and control-freak bosses?

Any opinions would be very, very welcome.

PS: as I’m soliciting opinions for a written feature, I’m assuming that anyone who leaves a comment or emails me about this is happy for me to quote them in print. If you’d rather I didn’t, please say so in your comment or email. Thanks.

Silicon Swansea

Given my constant ranting about firms and government departments that make a complete mess of anything to do with technology, it’s nice to find an exception: the DVLA in Swansea (our equivalent of the DMV, for anyone reading in the US). Instead of queuing in the post office for hours to re-licence the car, you can now do it online.

The process is ridiculously simple. You get a reminder in the post, and you then visit the DVLA web site, pop in the reference number from the reminder, and confirm that the car details on screen are yours. The site then automatically interrogates its database to confirm that you have up-to-date car insurance and an MOT certificate (if applicable), asks you for your debit card details, and sends out a brand new tax disc to your home within five working days. And that’s it. It’s a shining example of how, if used correctly, the internet can make everyday irritations that little bit less irritating.

Scotland quits smoking

One for the “utterly predictable” file: the Scottish Executive has made its decision on a smoking ban, and has decided to implement a complete ban on smoking in public places by the spring of 2006, with fines of £1,000 for anyone who defies the ban (and fines of up to £3,600 and the loss of their drinks licence for publicans who let people smoke on their premises).

While I’m generally in favour of a ban (with some exemptions) I still think it’s a black (lung) day for democracy; the consultation was horrifically biased and surveys (from both sides of the debate) suggest that the number of people against an outright ban is between 50% and 77%. The Glasgow Herald reported that a survey carried out *on behalf of the executive* found that there was a split of 70-30 against an outright ban – but as the Scottish Executive put it, “Scotland’s health record meant it was not acceptable to simply wait for public opinion to catch up.” In other words, you didn’t vote for this, we don’t have a mandate to do this, but we know what’s best for you and you’d bloody well better do what we say.

In a rather ironic postscript, prisoners will still be allowed to smoke in their cells. As the tories put it, criminals will be able to smoke but smokers will become criminals.

It’s all a bit of a mess. The police have made it crystal clear that they don’t want to be charged with enforcing a ban, on the – perfectly reasonable – grounds that they’ve got enough proper crimes to deal with. Which leaves it to the councils, who have some interesting ideas. According to The Herald:

Dundee City Council’s reply suggested that such a ban could be extended. “In due course, consideration on introducing smoking bans could be extended to external covered public areas such as sports stadiums,” the document stated. “Also consideration should be given to banning smoking in private motor vehicles where children are present”.
Aberdeen City Council has raised the prospect of smoking spies, after councillors voiced concerns about the cost of policing the ban: “Gathering the necessary evidence of any offence could be very difficult and time-consuming,” said the response. “It is likely to require an element of covert surveillance and a large proportion of work involved undertaken outside normal working hours.”

Things are different in England. As the Evening Standard reports:

Strong opposition among Londoners to an outright smoking ban has led the Government to propose compromise plans for the country. Health Secretary John Reid will seize on a recent Mori poll for the Mayor of London showing that just 42 per cent of the public backed a total ban in bars and pubs, the Evening Standard has learned.

As Colin Wilkinson of the Scottish Licensed Trades Association told The Sunday Times:

You have to ask, is this another poll tax situation where Scotland becomes the guinea pig again?

Update, 11 Nov

The Herald reports that even the Scottish Executive’s consulation didn’t come out in favour of an outright ban: “The move follows the executive’s largest ever public consultation, to which more than 52,000 people and 1000 groups and businesses responded. However, only 45% favoured a total ban, and 28% thought there should be exemptions if a law was introduced, chiefly for pubs. “

A bad Powerbook memory

Over the years I’ve slapped extra RAM into various machines (PC and Mac) without problems. Well, except for one Dell where I ordered the wrong chips, which wasn’t very smart. However, I’m rapidly losing patience with my 15″ Powerbook after *months* of unsuccessful memory upgrades. I’ve tried repeatedly to upgrade the RAM to 1Gb using Crucial and Kingston chips – the correct ones, based on both firms’ memory finders and Apple product number equivalents – and on each occasion it’s been a disaster. Booting up means a 99% chance of a Kernel Panic, and in the 1% of occasions when it doesn’t go tits-up on boot it freezes solid once all the desktop icons have appeared. I’m only able to write this because I’ve reverted to the OEM chips once again.

Doing various web searches I’ve discovered a possible fix (tweaking Energy Saver settings – it doesn’t work) and lots of people saying “yeah, it’s a problem with the 15″ Powerbooks, they’re really fussy about the RAM”. But does anyone actually know how to fix it without paying Apple’s comedy prices, or am I doomed to an eternity of ordering chips, testing them, sending them back, getting replacements, sending them back… until I go mad, smash the Powerbook to pieces and order a Dell Inspiron instead?

Any bright ideas would be appreciated…

U2’s new album is rubbish. Or is it?

I’ve been listening to the new U2 album – it’s all over the net – and my initial reaction isn’t good: so far, nothing other than Vertigo has particularly grabbed me. Which got me thinking… is there an effect to file sharing that people haven’t really paid attention to?

Whenever I used to buy CDs, I’d sit and listen to them again and again and again. Typically albums were “growers”, and it’d take a while to get into them. But with file sharing, I’ve found I’m much less willing to give a record time to grow. That’s probably because the ritual of record buying – anticipation before the release date, the trip to the record shop, the trip home reading the sleeve notes and lyrics – is no longer there, and partly because with file sharing there’s no financial incentive to persevere. It didn’t cost you anything, so why spend hours waiting for it to grow on you?

And that’s how I feel about the new U2 album, but I suspect that’s a bad thing. I hated every single track on their last record, but since then about half of the album has really grown on me and a few songs are regular visitors to my iPod playlist. This time out I’m equally unimpressed, so I probably won’t buy the record. But if the last few albums are anything to go by, I’ll probably end up loving at least some of the tracks.

I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of other net users: when you use file sharing to preview tracks – something I’m entirely in favour of – do you give new records the same investment that you do when you’ve shelled out hard-earned cash on a CD? I’m all ears…

My NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap

I don’t watch TV very often – news programmes, the odd bit of MTV2 and re-runs of Have I Got News For You – but when I do, I’m struck by a very important truth: my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap.

The box – branded NTL but actually made by Pace – is a masterpiece of bad design. The user interface is horrible, it’s desperately slow, the remote is uncomfortable… but all of these things are dwarfed by the fact that my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap.

I’m a simple soul. If I’m watching TV, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the “change channel” button to, er, change the channel. But not with my NTL digibox. When I turn on the TV, I’ve got a 50/50 chance of actually getting a picture. Half of the time, I get a blank screen and blank channels that can only be fixed by physically unplugging the digibox, waiting ten seconds, plugging it back in and watching a “please wait…” message for 200 years. If I don’t get that, every few days I’ll get a mystery error: I can’t change channels because the digibox can’t access programme listings for anything. It then tells me that I need to press Select to fix an “error” – a mystery error, for which there’s no explanation – and then watch the “please wait…” message for another 200 years.

Even when it works, that doesn’t mean I can expect my NTL digibox to do anything useful. Let’s say I’m on CNN and want to switch to MTV2 during the commercial break. I click the channel button, channel button, channel button, and then the channel option disappears and takes me right back to CNN. So I get smart: I click forward three channels and then click “OK”, before trying again. That does mean I end up watching the Watching Paint Dry Channel (or worse, Men and Motors) while I keep clicking the channel button, but it does save me the anguish of clicking through ten or eleven channels just for the NTL box to decide to reset itself back to the channel I started from. There’s no other explanation: my NTL digibox is clearly a goddamn piece of crap.

This is why I’ve yet to embrace the digital hub, the Media Center PC or the personal video recorder. Thanks to technology I’ve gone from something simple – a handful of channels that I can click through by pressing “up” or “down” on a remote control – to something complicated, that doesn’t work and that needs rebooting more often than the most virus-riddled, spyware-infested Windows PC. If hardware and media companies want us to embrace the digital home, they could make a start by creating technology that means I don’t have to reboot my television whenever I want to watch a programme.

Update, 18 November

The NTL engineer is in my living room and has identified three possible problems: insufficient ventilation, so the digibox may be overheating; a potentially cracked cable, that could affect the signal; and that my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap. There will apparently be a major software update on 15th December to address the third problem.

In the longer term, it seems that NTL will be replacing Pace boxes with Samsungs, which are currently being trialled in belfast and whose failure rate is a fraction of the Pace boxes. No word on when we’ll be able to get them, though.

As for the weird behaviour of my remote control, it seems that my lightbulbs are the problem. Because I use low energy bulbs in the front room, apparently they interfere with the frequency of the remote. It’s a known issue with NTL boxes, apparently. You learn something new every day.