Overdraft charges ruling

“The People’s” wonderful new Supreme Court has ruled that the Office of Fair Trading can’t investigate the rip-off fees charged by banks for unauthorised overdrafts. “Quite right”, chorus the smug idiots, “we’ve always got enough money in our accounts!”

The British Bankers Association is, of course, delighted. It had been putting out the propaganda that customers would be charged for simply having bank accounts if they lost, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to make a profit. Hello?!? That’s not how banks operate and they should be ashamed of themselves. And the smug rich people should be ashamed too – if their argument is correct then their free banking is being subsidised by the poor. (Incidentally, in case no one’s told you before, banks make a profit by paying savers a lower interest than borrowers, lending out considerably more than is deposited I might add, and pocketing the difference).

It’s a practical necessity to have a bank account if you live in this country, and banks are clearly exploiting this fact. Would the (old) Law Lords not have done something about this obvious problem?

And as for the numerous spokespersons for the banking industry trotting out statistics that this issue doesn’t affect most customers anyway, they must be joking! As well as the financially challenged, this affects everyone who’s paid in a cheque that’s bounced, everyone who’s suffered a bank error and everyone who’s employer has messed up the payroll run (often a problem with the bank themselves). It’s really easy to end up overdrawn on a current account, through no fault of your own, even if you have plenty of spare cash with the bank in a deposit account. This two-account approach is necessitated by the customer-unfriendly ‘financial product’ culture the banks themselves operate.

The people who are going to suffer from this are the normal hard-working types who operate through a current account and save a little for a rainy day. One simple mistake made by someone else and they’re stuck with a load of ridiculous charges. If you’ve got a lot of money in your deposit account, a quick call threatening to move your cash elsewhere gets rapid results. If you’re not in this happy position I wouldn’t rate your bargaining power.

The banks should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, but I expect they’re too busy pocketing their taxpayer-underwritten bonuses to even notice.

It’s no surprise that New Labour is letting them get away with it, but there’s a deafening silence coming from the other parties too. Scared to upset the bankers?

Cleaning an LCD Monitor or TV

I needed to clean a large LCD screen today. My usual recommendation for such things is to us a soft dry cloth (preferably microfibre), and to do it gently so as not to crack the glass. But this screen had a stubborn smear – possibly caused by a hand being wiped across. It had the appearance of a water mark of some sort – mineral deposits left by a cloth or tissue dampened with tap water perhaps?

The soft cloth wasn’t going to shift it, so a liquid was called for. But what?

You certainly don’t want to use use alcohol based cleaners on the delicate plastic of an LCD. It might be okay on some, but if it’s not you’ll trash it permanently. So a quick trawl of the web found me the favoured recipe, and everyone’s consistent about it distilled water plus vinegar, mixed 1:1. Any everyone’s wrong!

Vinegar is a great cleaner, and I use it for lots of things. But the idea of a 50% solution is a big warning – how strong is the vinegar to begin with? It’s too precise a recipe using imprecise ingredients. I tried it nonetheless, and ended up with a smear covering most of the screen rather than the original area I was trying to clean.

Time for some home cooking, and the solution is simple. Distilled water, a bit of vinegar and a small drop (no more) of washing up liquid (detergent). This lifted the deposits into suspension or solution on contact. The other trick you need to use is a double cloth – wipe off immediately after wiping on, before it has had a chance to dry.

I used soft kitchen paper towels for the process, but I thought the monitor was made of fairly hard plastic. A micro-fibre cloth would be safest if you’re not sure.

Scam.co.uk

Scan Computers has been around for some time, and they’ve always been tricky when it comes to faulty goods (I have a pile of DOA hard disks on my shelf to prove it). Now they’ve gone a step worse. Their latest wheeze is to add ‘installation insurance’ to your order without you knowing about it. There is a check-box, but it doesn’t always seem to stick and to make it trickier they don’t add it as an invoice line, they add it to the tax and shipping.

Watch out.

They’re still using a premium rate telephone number (without the required Ofcom warning) as their sole contact method if you have query about this extra charge. Incidentally, if you want the standard rate number for them it’s 01204 474747.

Nonetheless, I’ve sent them an email asking for an immediate recharge, or I’ll put a dispute on it with the credit card company. Let’s see what happens.

It’s a shame when this happens, because the people at Scan are basically very decent and helpful when you do manage to contact them, and they’re the place to go for high-end graphics systems. Like many companies, it seems they have someone in the money-making department dreaming up such schemes in the short term, and hack-off the punters long-term. Although this was less than 0.5% of the order value (it was only applied to some cooling fans – the big stuff wasn’t covered anyway), little things like this do get noticed and create a bad feeling – and everyone has a choice. Continue reading “Scam.co.uk”

Another health and safety gone mad

I’m not a fan of electric fires, but a relative lives in some flats where they’re the only option. So off we went shopping.

Bar fires seem to be long-gone – now they’re either fan-heaters, or fan-heaters dressed up to look like real fires when viewed with a great deal of imagination. This is the type that was required, as it was to fit into a traditional fireplace.

A fan heater is a fan heater. They convert electricity into heat, so a 2W heater produces 2W of heat and that’s about all there is to it, other than aesthetics and noise level. This means that in order to choose the best one for your purposes you really need to see them set up and running. So we worked out where we could see as many on sale as possible, and set off to Watford.

B+Q had a large selection screwed to the walls, but none were running. The same was true of Homebase and a couple of other shops. Still, brochures were collected and an interim decision was made on the assumption that the unit would look okay in action. Finally we got to Wickes, where there were a few fires available but not in that store. The assistant was kind enough to call another branch to check as to whether they had a display, and confirmed that they did – but none were connected.

By now I’d had enough of this, so asked why they didn’t bother wiring them up. The displays were obviously substantial, with fire surrounds built in, and there was power available for display lighting. After all, you don’t need to run the heating element, just the visual effects – it’s just a fancy lamp!

The reason was a stunner – they won’t wire them up for health and safety reasons because they’re dangerous. Now let’s get this streight – the idea of an electric fire is that it is not dangerous. There are no hot surfaces, the elements are inside the works, with only hot air blown out. There shouldn’t be any live wiring anywhere on the outside. That’s the point. You can have them on the floor with children in the room without worrying, and they should not spontaneously burst into flames.

Do all these shops sell fires that are too dangerous to leave on display?

I realised I was on a looser at this point and ordered a Valor Dimension from an Internet dealer based on its brochure. We’ll see when it arrives, but the photo looked just as good, if not better, than anything we saw not working in the shops.

If retailers are worried about customers switching to the Internet they’re not exactly going out of their way to lure customers back. It’s not going to end well for them.

Update: The Valor Dimension was spectacularly good – I can thoroughly recommend it. As a fan heater, it’s a fan heater, but the flame effect has to be seen to be believed.

Micro Men – Acorn vs Sinclair

The BBC has, for once, come up with a one-off programme I actually enjoyed – Micro Men. It’s screening now (several times) on BBC4, and if you were around at the start of the micro computer era you really should watch it. It looks like it was made for us nerds.

It deals with the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn in the UK home computer market. Okay, it takes a lot of liberties with events and totally ignores the rest of the industry – the best you can say is that it’s fiction based on history. But if you look beyond that, the background detail was completely amazing. And I’m not just talking about having the correct covers on the issues of PCW, although this was nice to see.

For a start, look at the posters on the walls – they’re spot on. Then look at the electronics they’re playing with in the lab. That’s either the guts of a real Acorn Atom or it’s a very good reproduction, even though the chips, which would have been more interesting, are hidden on the reverse. The software on the shelves at WH Smith looks like the real thing, in the real packaging.

In the closing scenes, where Chris Curry and Herman Hauser are discussing where it all went wrong, the whiteboard behind them contains the instantly recognisable design goals of the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM). Even the briefcases the men from the ministry carried – I bought one just like that in 1978 and I’ve still got it!

Someone was obviously paying a great deal of attention to such detail, and I didn’t see anyone mentioned in the credits who could have supplied it. But could it have been Roger Wilson, the genius I’ve always believed to be behind Acorn/BBC BASIC? He featured prominently in the depiction of the Acorn team, whereas Andy Hopper was nowhere to be seen; although this is perfectly reasonable from a dramatic sense

Roger Wilson has subsequently changed to Sophie Wilson, and I got a call from an old friend claiming that she appeared (unaccredited) in a cameo role as the barmaid. I never remember meeting Roger Wilson in person, so can’t tell, but it’s plausible when looking at it again.

The final scene, where Clive Sinclair drives a C5 down a runway only to be overtaken by two lorries, one from Microsoft and one from HP is obviously symbolic of the thrust of the whole film. Romantic, but wrong, of course. We’d all been using microcomputers with Microsoft software for a couple of years before either Sinclair or Acorn came on the scene with their ultra low-cost offerings. Like most people I knew, we avoided the newcomers because they were too cut-down an unsuitable for general nerd activities – particularly interfacing to things. And their manufactured PCBs used hairline copper tracks that were covered in solder-resist – difficult to rework.

Acorn and Sinclair started too late, and ended up building the machines we all wanted in 1980. By 1984 the bulk of computers were being sold not to enthusiasts, but users wanting pre-packaged software running CP/M or MS-DOS – and the Apple Macintosh was on the scene showing the way forward. The Mac booted into user-mode whereas previous machines started with the BASIC programming prompt.

What they didn’t realise was that we were never going to become a nation of computer programmers, we were going to become computer users. And the rest is history.

I killed the computing press.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were a lot of interesting companies producing interesting bits and pieces related to the world of computing, and a lot people were interested in hearing about them. By about 2000, computers had become commodities, as expected. There are obviously far fewer manufactures, and their products tend to be pretty much the same. They’re mostly bought by people as tools, and most computer users wouldn’t recognise a bus controller even if it ran them over.

Not only have I stopped reviewing computer parts, I’ve stopped reading such reviews. Until now. Right now I want to read a review of current colour laser printers. Why? I want to buy one, of course, and I don’t know which one to pick.

You see, unlike PCs, it does matter which printer you choose because you want to produce the best possible output. This is something that can be tested objectively and subjectively by an independent human; you won’t be able to decide it by looking at the competing specifications. And speaking of specifications, they’re probably not going to be entirely honest when it comes to other metrics, so there’s not substitute for some standard test prints and a stopwatch.

I rang a friend from the Golden Age who should have known, and asked where the reviews were to be found now that Personal Computer World had folded. I was shocked at what I learned. Apparently the decline of the computer press is far worse than I feared. Not only has PCW disappeared, but PC Magazine is no more (in Europe) and the remainder are fading away. There’s no advertising revenue. And it’s all my fault! Yes – I haven’t even bought a computer mag in years. How could I have bought anything through reading adverts? Or reviews?

But reviews are essential. Without them, how can anyone decide what’s good and what’s not? Where are the reviews? If anyone can tell me, then please do.

I was directed towards cnet – founded by some ex-VNU types, apparently. Also, to my surprise, Trusted Reviews They do know a bit about what they’re reviewing, but I suspect, having read some of them, that there aren’t many big guns on the staff to provide context. In fact I do wonder about there being much in the way of staff at all. Staff cost money and there’s precious little of that around for journalism. And no, there were no comparative reviews of current printers to be found.

Other on-line reviews are written by users. There’s always danger they’ve been written by idiots, but either way, they’re necessarily ill-informed. If I were to review a printer now, I’d be ill-informed too. I’d need to have seen most of the printers out there in order to appreciate the good and bad points relating the the review’s subject, and that’s not going to be the case with a user.

User reviews are either full of praise or damming. Most people spending their hard-earned money on something are hardly likely to say they made the wrong choice. They’ll believe they’ve bought something good – if not they wouldn’t have handed over the dosh in the first place. They start off biased. Only if the item fails to deliver will they refrain from gushing praise in it’s direction. Instead, they’ll utterly condemn it, being furious with the supplier and manufacturer for having conned them.

So given that professional reviews are still needed, what’s the business model going forward?

Flamin’ Forty!

Well that’s it – forty years old. I’ve just turned forty. This is pretty much half way, and I’ve never kept a diary. In fact, I’ve never had much to do with paper in any form – but technology has moved on.

An old colleague of mine from journalism days – David Brake – started a blog years ago and I thought it was a fun idea. So I’ve set this one up using the same software on the assumption that he knew what he was doing.