Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rental Car "Upgrades"

The last article I read before leaving my flat to pick up a hire car on Saturday morning was this:

Freakonomics at Work in Rental Cars

It describes a guy who reserved one class of car but, when he arrived to pick it up, he was warmly greeted with news that he had been "upgraded" to a bigger, better model "at no extra charge!!"

The argument for why this was a bad thing went like this:

  • Fuel prices are high
  • So gas guzzlers are not selling
  • So car manufacturers are selling cars with bad mileage to the hire firms at knock-down rates
  • The hire-firms then rent these out to unsuspecting customers who think they have received a bargain - when, in fact, they are about the be stung for far more fuel than they anticipated
  • An extension to the scam is that hire firms will try to sell you a full tank of fuel "to save you refuelling at the end of your hire period" - and so will benefit from selling a car with a bigger tank.

Very interesting, I thought.

And then Hertz at London City Airport stung me with the scam thirty minutes later!

We had booked a Ford Mondeo 1.8 - nothing special, but enough for three people and their bags.

We were congratulated on having been upgraded to a two-seater Alfa Romeo. I pointed out that three people would not fit in it.

The guy paused for a second before offering us  Saab 9-5 instead.

Now, a 9-5 isn't that much bigger than a Mondeo so I checked it was the same engine size ("It's a 2.0l - but we could have given you a 2.0l Mondeo in any case"). So far, so reasonable. He also let slip that it was an automatic but I wasn't quick enough to start smelling the rat.

The reality: after we had signed the paperwork and gone outside, it transpired that this was a monstrous estate car with a 2.3 litre turbo-charged engine.

We were running too late to argue so took it.

The car was very nice to drive and very fast. But we barely scraped 30 miles per gallon (on a 650 mile round trip).

Somewhere in Hertz HQ, they probably think this little system is win-win for all concerned. And, mostly, it is.... unless you're driving a long way and petrol is learly £1 per litre...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Looks like Tyler forgot about Digital Cameras

Tyler Cowen links to an MSN article on ten things you shouldn't buy new.

Looks like Andy has a candidate for entry number eleven.

Seeping Pipes

I've been mostly sympathetic to Thames Water's excuses for their shocking water leakage record: London's pipes are very old and, like pretty much all previously nationalised industries, the water industry suffered woeful levels of investment before it was privatised.

Indeed, Tim Worstall claims here that leakage rates today are worse in Scotland (where the industry is still state owned).

I was reminded about water leakages when I was walking to the station on my way to work yesterday.

There was a big hole in the pavement and, as I like to do, I peered in.  What I saw was a rusty old pipe that appeared to have been capped. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It looked like it was sweating.  Rivulets of water were dripping from every area of the surface.  It was a remarkable sight: if even a tiny percentage of London's pipes are like this, nothing short of replacing them all will get the leaks under control. 

Fixing this problem isn't as simple as the Thames Water bashers would have us believe... these aren't big leaks that need to be repaired once and for all but widespread low-level drips that require a long term sustained programme of works.

The end of the DLR

The Docklands Light Railway has been remarkably reliable for all the time I have lived in longer.   Whether due to luck, good maintenance or youth, it has been free of the "points failures", "signal failures" and "train failures" so beloved of the underground.

Sadly, no longer.

There must have been at least three or four separate problems on the DLR in two weeks: I can think of three separate points failure on the stretch between Poplar and Bank/Tower Gateway alone.

Either there's a rogue train out there that is ripping up bits of track or something has gone very wrong...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Fantastic Scam...

As Bruce says, we know we shouldn't give our credit card details to somebody who has called us. The genius described in the linked article reminds us that we can't even safely give our details when we make the call.

Moving house recently, I've been interested to note the differing levels of security used by different companies.

BT, Water, Gas and Electricity were the worst offenders: if you call them and give an account number and name, they'll do whatever you tell them. There's probably not much scope to defraud someone (although I'm not smart enough to spot loopholes of this sort) but you could certainly cause mischief (closing somebody's account and forwarding their bills elsewhere could be a way of ruining their credit history)

From the article, it seems AT&T go a step further: you can call them and get them to redirect any number to anywhere else.... I wonder if you could redirect a landline to a premium rate number. It'd be a neat way to make some free money.

(Note: I'm not actually advocating anyone actually try this.... I quite like being employed and free. Being unemployed and/or in prison isn't currently on my "to do" list)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Antiperistalsis and the Subjunctive

Ed Brill makes a good point in his comment to this article. He hints, humorously, that the quality of the writing in an article can compensate for any deficiencies in the content.

In his example, he uses the subjunctive as a signalling mechanism for a well-written post.

I find that Americans "get" the subjunctive. Were I to live there, I am sure I would also start to use it more.

However, it's a form of speech that very few Brits seem to use. I am indebted to my friends Henry and Polly for teaching me about it (and shaming me into using it correctly).

Spontaneous Order Myth Shattered

I worked in IBM Hursley every working day for several years - and I still go there a few times each month.

For all that time, the cleaning staff employed a remarkably effective system: whenever one "restroom facility" was being cleaned, all the nearest ones would be free. That is: even though there were multiple cleaners, they managed never to clean two adjacent washrooms at the same time.

That way, if your 'favourite' one was closed for cleaning, you could walk to any other one and be sure it would be free.

I noticed how useful this system was when I was on my last project (at a telco in East Anglia). They did not employ this system and one would regularly have to try three or four different parts of the site before you could find an open washroom (or just wait until they were done... but I'm impatient)

You can imagine my shock, therefore, when I was in Hursley last week and the same fate had befallen that site: two adjacent washrooms were being cleaned at the same time.

This has completely shattered my assumption of good planning... perhaps the apparent efficiency of my first three years at IBM was just good luck!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

What is the optimal route from Wapping to Bedfont Lakes?

I live in the perfect location for a career in the City: I am a mile or so from the Tower of London and a twenty minute walk from Canary Wharf.

There is one small problem, though: I don't work in the financial services industry; I work in the IT industry. And the spiritual home of the IT industry in the UK is the "M4 Corridor". This is in West London. In other words, I live in the opposite end of town to where my industry is based.

Working for IBM, this normally isn't a problem: I spend most of my time at clients (I am very close to a good airport - London City), working from home or at an IBM location of my choice (South Bank is easy to get to and Hursley isn't too painful once in a while).

However, occasionally, it's necessary to go where the critical mass is. And that means that today I had to go to Bedfont. 

Bedfont Lakes is one of IBM's main locations. It's very close to Heathrow Airport and is in the heart of IT-land (SAP are next door, Oracle are down the road, etc, etc). 

So the question is: how do I get there?  The "M4 Corridor" is named after the motorway that it follows. The clue is there..... this is a car-oriented working environment.  The area consists of never-ending streams of dreary business "parks" clustered around artificial lakes and "interesting" sculptures.  It's "nice" if you like that sort of thing, I suppose...

However, for me, this sort of setup is a pain in the neck. I don't run a car and, even if I did, it wouldn't do me much good as I'd have to cross Central London in it.

So, when I come to Bedfont, I take the train. And the question I've been gearing up to, readers, is: "Which way should I go?"

Here are my options:

Home -> Waterloo -> Feltham -> Bus/Cab to office

Home -> Paddington -> Heathrow -> Bus/Cab to office

The Waterloo option is convenient because it's easier for me to get to Waterloo than Paddington but the trains to Feltham don't run hugely regularly.

The Paddington option is cool because the Heathrow Express is fast but it also costs a lot more and if you get your timing wrong, you can be fighting with 300 irritable, smelly travellers off a 747 from halfway across the world.

I used the Waterloo option today and it wasn't too painful but I can't help thinking I'm missing a trick.  Just what is the best way to get from Docklands to Bedfont?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hacking Tesco Discounts

Product: Tesco Finest Chicken Breast with Rocket Sauce & Asparagus.


Normal Situation:

Barcode: 5 051008 990461

Price: £4.99


This evening:

Replacement barcode (sticky label): 9715 0510 0899 0461 4001 7504

Discounted price: £1.75


Respacing the replacement barcode, we get:

971 5 051008 990461 4 00175 04

Hmmm.... it's the original barcode with a few digits prepended and the new price added at the end.  Are they insane?

With a couple more examples, I think it would be trivial to create Tesco discount labels at will.

Surely encoding the discounted price of an item on the barcode is a pretty stupid thing to do?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

It's not just me!

I've always thought St. George Wharf looked like a gang of angry wasps. And I was RIGHT!

My eBay technique requires refinement

Adrian Spender describes how well he has done on eBay of late. Compared to the pitiful £1 I sold my "big box of junk" for, I suspect I have one or two things to learn

(I suspect advertising my big box of junk as "A Big Box Of Junk" was probably mistake #1 :-)   )

Andrew Ferrier also has a good piece on how eBay can teach us about trade and wealth.

Windows Live Writer

I've posted a few entries using this tool now and I'm pretty impressed.   It imported my blog template from Blogger and so I can edit my posts in an almost perfect WYSIWYG style (down to the default fonts and colours used on the page).

One thing though.... I can't find a way to minimise it to my System Tray. So I have to keep on relaunching it whenever I want to make a post.

Anyone know how to fix this?

Another good reason for buying trackers or making your own judgements...

The Telegraph reports on a study that suggests active fund managers not only usually do worse than an index but almost always do worse than a machine. Given how lavishly they're paid for mediocrity, I'm so in the wrong business. (And no... I don't want any comments suggesting that I'm doing OK for a mediocre IT consultant...)

My direct investments are either in trackers or stocks I've picked myself but I think I need to check where my pension is...


RedMonk's O'Grady (can't remember if he's Steven or Stephen right now and I'm offline so I'll just call him by his last name and nobody will ever discover my ignorance...) talks about Bruce Schneier's take on the latest Airline security scare.

I am just about to transition (temporarily) into a different role and I suspect my need to fly will be minimal for the rest of the year. But, were I still doing Europe-wide consulting, I think the latest incident would be the one that made me stop flying... and it wouldn't be because of the fear of terrorism or the "newly discovered" risk.

Rather, the intolerably excessive restrictions that have been brought in, the unbearable conditions at checkin/security and the monotony of flying with no laptop and no iPod mean there's no way I would want to fly anywhere.

So I guess the "bad guys" have won: had my job not done it first, they'd have (temporarily at least) stopped me flying.

Yet another use for the AOL search data...

... meta-searching to figure out who's searching for stuff you're also interested in. I guess it's like a more detailed version of Google Trends.

Ewww... Too much detail, Ed!

Ed Brill:

"a mother was faced with the embarassing situation of having her daughter empty her stomach's contents right at the boarding door.  I realize the new security says "no fluids" but I think that's taking it a little far....."

He highlights a good point, though. It just confirms my belief that children should be banned from airlines. Perhaps there's an opportunity for someone to open kiddie-kennels at airports where children can be stored while their parents jet off somewhere nice?

Monday, August 14, 2006

SCA is a "Winner"

I was browsing for articles on SCA (Service Component Architecture) and noticed this press release from Cape Clear.

It's great to see such wide vendor support for SCA and I was particularly interested to read Cape Clear quote Gartner Research VP Jess Thompson say: "SCA Is a Winner in the Quest to Establish a Common Notation for SOA".

I guess it shows (yet again) how I fail to keep track of things that I should be on top of but it was the first time I'd seen such a clear endorsement.

Test of Windows Live Writer

Thanks to Andy for pointing me at this. It looks very nice. I've been frustrated by w.bloggar lately (after a few posts, it starts complaining that it can't access the network and I have to restart it) so perhaps this will become my authoring tool of choice...

Bendy Buses

John Palmer asks why London is making a switch to single-decker "bendy buses". I've added my thoughts to his post. Does anyone know the real reason?

Disastrous Drug Trial

New Scientist has a little more background on the events surrounding the drug trial that went horrifically wrong a few months back

I noticed a few adverts on the tube last week for Guy's Hospital (I think). I can't help thinking they're not going to have many takers for a while.

Technological Arbitrage

I've not heard that phrase before but it's a good one.

Bruce Schneier links to an article about the supposedly more secure "Chip and Pin" credit/debit card system that was recently introduced to the UK can be circumvented by cloning the magnetic strip (i.e. the "old" technology) and then using it at a location that knows nothing about the new system (in this case an ATM in India).

I've heard stories of it happening in the UK too where a merchant hasn't upgraded their systems - or where banks haven't upgraded their ATMs. Indeed, I wish I could find one story I read that described how the presence of a chip on a card is encoded on the magnetic strip... so you can get even an upgraded ATM to fallback to the older magnetic strip technology simply by changing that bit on the strip.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More pictures of the flat

Andrew asks in the comments to this post whether I am living in the penthouse. The answer is no. I am not living in the penthouse. The flat, rather, is on the ground floor.

Here's a photo of the living room, looking out over the patio and across the Thames towards Rotherhithe:

The patio itself:

Thanks to being at the "edge" of the development, there's quite a wide view from the balcony. Looking downstream, here is the view of canary wharf:

Slashdot roundup

Since blogging and RSS readers and all the rest came along, I've found myself reading slashdot less and less (their commenters are just as unintentially hilarious as ever, however)

But, I do cast an eye over their feed from time to time.

Here are some of the stories that caught my eye....

GUIs through history

How to stop google spying on you

Contagious cancer in dogs.. Wow... a 250-year-old cloned cancer cell.

Vacuum Cleaner Instruction Manuals

I never thought I'd be saying this but I was just impressed by an instruction book for a vacuum cleaner.

Robert Dyas were selling this "Salton Bagless Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner and we chose it based entirely on price.

It doesn't feel particularly well-built - but then what do you expect for £30?

Where it stands out, however, is its instruction manual; a literary masterpiece.


  • Keep hair, clothing, fingers (and toes), away from the end doing the sucking. It won't drag you bodily into the bin, but it might give you a bit of a start

  • There's a red band about a metre [from the end of the cable]. This means "Stop pulling, you've run out of cable!". If you're very strong and you keep pulling, you could probably haul the cable right out of the cleaner - this is not a good idea.

  • Caution. If you've accidentally pressed the on/off switch, the cleaner could come on when you plug it in. This could give you a bit of a start, so be careful.

  • If the cleaner starts to get noisier and you start to lose suction, don't worry, it's not the end of the world, you've probably just blocked it up.

Subtle, understated but obviously written by someone with ambitions to do more than write vacuum cleaner manuals for the rest of their lives.

I'll be keeping my eye out for other Salton products.

Thunder and lightning (very, very frightening)

Typical.... you move into a new flat with a nice, large patio/terrace/balcony thing and then it rains all weekend, with thunder and lightning for extra effect.

For those who are interested, here is a photo of the development:

Given my interest in all things economic, it is immensely gratifying that my new address is "Free Trade Wharf".

I never thought I'd be impressed by an ISP...

I was delighted to hear about the explosion of competition triggered by LLU and the entrance of the likes of Carphone Warehouse into the UK residential broadband (ADSL) market. Competition is always fantastic news for consumers and the price pressure that CPW's "free" offering has applied to the market is a delight to behold.

However, as good as CPW's entrance into the market is, I consider it entirely something that is good for other people. As soon as it was announced, I knew there would be stories of "unexpected demand", "delays", "customer services issues" and all the rest and I decided I wanted nothing to do with it.

However, I wasn't sure what effect their entrance would have on other ISPs. Would they reduce their prices to match? Would they try to compete on other aspects of the service?

My ISP at my previous flat was freedom2surf. We'd had no problems with them but they were quite pricey. For the sake of convenience I decided to stay with them at the new place (I couldn't transfer the account over but they did at least keep the direct debit payment information the same).

What amazed me was how quickly they got the new connection up and running. The connection was up and running within about three days of BT activating the new line - far more quickly than their ten-day estimate and my guesstimate of 5-6 days.


Coté's notes on FileNet

RedMonk's irrepressible Coté made a nice mind-map of the analyst call where IBM's acquisition of FileNet was discussed.

I return to the office on Tuesday. It will be very interesting catching up with everyone to find out what they think and where the opportunities for cooperation lie... like I said the other day, I've competed with FileNet before and let's just say that there are competitors out there who I prefer to come up against (not to say I didn't win.... I don't do losing :-) )

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I know I'm supposed to be on vacation but...

.... it appears IBM has just bought FileNet.

From publicly available information, it seems that the plan is to combine it into the Content Management area of the business.

I'm looking forward to working with the FileNet guys... I've competed with them in competitive business process management situations several times in the past and I have a lot of respect for them.

Apple Rules

I bought an Apple Airport Express last year and have been very happy with it: it allows me to play music on iTunes on my laptop but have the sound come from my stereo speakers... it's all done wirelessly. Cool!

One extra feature of the device, which I hadn't used until now, was its printing support: you can plug a USB printer into it. I've just tried it and it works just great: I can now print wirelessly to the printer without having to attach the printer to a computer or replace it with one that understands networking. Fantastic stuff.

Save money!

It is amazing how well a large mortgage can focus the mind on saving money.

I've just halved my contents insurance premium by switching to Tesco. Wow...

At last...

.... somebody's produced a wristband that gets it right:


(HT: Tim Worstall)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Moved House

My blogging has been light as I've just moved house... for what seems like the thirtieth time in three years.

Hopefully this move will be the last for a long time as this one is mortgaged and not rented (scary...!)

Photos (and normal service) will emerge when the chaos subsides.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

e, i, C and lunatics

I forget how I found it but I've been enjoying this blog immensely.

He seems to enjoy obscure programming languages (not my bag but can be mildly diverting), baiting those who think they have discovered proof of supernatural entities in pseudo-mathematical articles and, most enjoyably, he has a gift for making areas of mathematics seem interesting.

He's covered the concept of zero, i and, most recently, e. I hold a degree in mathematics and was ashamed at how much I had forgotten....

An hour left to get a box of electrical goodies for a knock down price!

The current bid is only a pound at the time of writing.... that is a *bargain* and a half.

The box contains a nice mouse, two minidisc players, some noise-cancelling headphones and a LOT more.....

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Why there will always be a market for those who can explain things clearly

My parents' TV broke last week. Against my advice, they went to an electrical retailer yesterday and "bought a new one". I have no idea what process they went through to choose a TV with the right combination of features, size, price and reliability for their needs; I suspect they went through no such process at all. That's not to criticise: they must simply value spontaneity more highly than I do.

The first I knew of their purchase was when I was walking through Duisburg last night looking for a restaurant. My phone rang and it turned out they had spent ninety minutes trying to get their new TV to work.

The instructions made no sense at all and they just couldn't get it "tuned in".

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that they have cable and their cable box connected to their old TV via Scart. Their TV aerial was unused and, to my knowledge, remains unused. Therefore, the concept of "tuning in" their TV was redundant.

As they discovered after I asked them to change channel on the cable box, their TV had been working all along....

However, it's too easy to jump to the conclusion that they are tech-illiterate hillbillies. They did what they thought was the right thing: they followed the instructions in the book. They had no knowledge of "SCART" and "AV1" and why this means they don't need to "tune in" their TV. They thought that following the quick-start guide in the book would be their best solution.

How wrong they were.

So, if it's possible to spend ninety minutes trying (and failing) to configure a new TV - one of the most pervasive consumer electronic devices on the planet - how much opportunity must there be out there for those who can help the average person configure any of the other items currently on sale on the high street?

I am so very clearly in the wrong job.

Feeds vs Reads

James Governor talks about the difference between a portal-based approach to delivering content and an approach that provides APIs/Feeds.

It's an interesting question. How do I interact with online services?

A few years ago, there were tens of websites I would visit on a daily basis. Now there are probably only three or four (my share dealing account, GMail, IBM intranet homepage and that's about it). Everything else I used to read regularly (and much more) is now delivered to me in my RSS reader.

However, the question goes a little deeper.

Consider my small-time share trading dabbling - or my flat purchase that is currently grinding its way towards completion.

I'm a fairly obsessive person so I check my stock prices several times a day (I know, I know... I really shouldn't) and I check the online tracker at my solicitor's website a couple of times a day too. In both cases, it would be more efficient simply to be informed when something has happened.

But what happens when you start looking at more complicated things?

My share dealing website aggregates lots of different pieces of information: the shares I own, the purchase price, how many I own, the current price, the tax treatment, the dividend history. The design of the site is an attempt to optimise my access to all this information.

But what if I wanted to aggregate this information with my National Savings holdings, my current account balances and my IBM stock and options?

An API into each of the relevant providers would make this far easier but then we get onto the harder question of: what functionality should the API expose?

If it simply provides me with a dump of all the data then that puts a heavy burden on me. If it provides only "useful" subsets of data, then I have to hope the "useful" subset is the one I want.

As a piece James links to says: being able to join across different feeds is absolutely critical... and it's not something I've seen a good solution to yet in the Web world.

Joining across disparate data sources is something that WebSphere Information Integrator has been able to do for some time (e.g. perform a query that joins a table in SAP with a table in Oracle... if I've understood the sales pitch correctly!).... extending that to web services would be extraordinarily powerful.

The canonical London pronunciation guide admits fallibility

When I moved to London I was concerned that I would betray my new-arrival status by mispronouncing one of the many London place names that is pronounced in a non-intuitive manner.

Marylebone is one such place name.

I taught myself to pronounce it by listening to how it is pronounced on the Bakerloo line. It turns out that the announcer tried multiple different ways of saying it too. Arghh! What's the right pronunciation?!


I'm in Duisburg this week doing some work for a client who has a big IT operation here.

Yesterday was a rather eventful day

  • I ran into an old college friend (the one who bullied me into playing squash) in the queue for coffee in the departure lounge

  • The taxi driver at Dusseldorf airport managaed to turn a 20 minute cab ride into a 75 minute journey of discovery. (The lesson here is: don't rely on the sat nav if it's clearly giving insane instructions - you'd think a taxi driver would know this but you'd be wrong)

  • The Steigenberger hotel in Duisburg is the first business hotel I've ever stayed in that doesn't have air conditioned rooms. I was so hot last night that I thought I was going to pass out. I packed my bags this morning and was about to cancel the rest of my booking and check out two days early when they "managed" to find me a cooler room. Strange how they didn't think of offering one when I called down to reception the night before....

I also encountered the usual moral hazard that is presented by self-checkin machines..... do you tell the truth about the fact that you have a laptop case and a suitcase but are travelling economy in a tiny plane (and hence be forced to check it in) or do you lie to the machine (after all... it's only a machine.....)?

As always, I lied to the machine and was most grateful that Lufthansa had laid on a little trolley for me to place my suitcase on as I boarded and that it was there waiting for me when I disembarked. I know most airlines do this as a matter of course when you're flying on one of those tiny planes that you have to walk up to but I live in fear that one day a bossy official will shout at me and I'll get in trouble :-p

And while I'm on the topic of business travel... my client (a bank) has free coffee and sparkling water in its offices. Accustomed as I am to paying nine pence for a cup of hot water, this was a welcome surprise.

Economist Obituaries...

.... are just the best.

This week: Mickey Spillane and Robert Brooks in one article, in the style of a Spillane novel.

Investment Update!

Chris Wilkinson asks in the comments to this article how my investments are doing.

For those who follow such things, my initial investments were made in August and September last year. I discussed them here.

The status of my investments as of close of business today (1 August 2006) is as follows:

InstrumentDateBuy priceCurrent priceReturn including dividends
FTSE 100 Tracker12 August 2005540.90590.5011.45%
FTSE 100 Tracker22 August 2005540.12590.5011.61%
MSCI Japan24 August 2005613.50708.5016.46%
MSCI Japan19 September 2005640.00708.5011.63%
Morrison (Wm)16 September 2005183.97203.2512.49%
Premium Bonds16 September 2005 (est)100.001002.5%
Total Return7.3%

There are several points to note

  • Premium Bonds suck as an investment. I put a big chunk into Premium Bonds and, as you can see, they performed tragically compared with the equity investments (but then I guess there were a little safer).

  • I didn't reinvest dividends.... I know... I know.... I just never got round to it

  • These figures don't include the annual £25 charge from Selftrade

  • Stripping out the Premium bonds, the annual return was 12.63% - beating the FTSE by about a percent.

  • These figures are for an approximately 11-11.5 month period

So, all in all, the my little foray into the investment game has paid off so far. I've now sold my premium bonds to cover the stamp duty I have to pay on a flat I'm buying and am hoping not to have to touch anything else for a while to come.