May 2010 Archives

[Monday update - the folk at TNT got back to me after this post (they're on Twitter) and took care of things - they let me know this morning it would be delivered between 0930 and 1030, and indeed the shiny was successfully delivered at 0956. Thanks, TNT Customer Service!]

I will admit I'm a techie nerd, and I'll also admit without shame that I pre-ordered an iPad on the first day pre-orders opened up for Switzerland. Indeed. I pre-ordered in the first couple of hours. I think it's a nifty gadget and do actually have some planned uses for it (mostly to do with replacing the netbook I use for noodling around on during my commute). I pre-ordered for delivery to my home because, well, I may think it's a nifty gadget but I don't really have any desire to go and stand in line at the Apple Store on launch day with a lot of people who seem way, way too excited at the prospect of getting their hands on a gadget. I think it's cool, but.. y'know, I'm not religious.

Ordering a new Apple product online is.. well, for a gadget nerd it's the equivalent of buying pornography by post for delivery "under plain cover" rather than proudly strolling into the sex shop and walking out with a bag labelled PORNO FILTH. It's discreet, it comes right to your door, and it gets delivered in a plain brown box rather than one labelled SHINY APPLE STUFF PLEASE MOCK ME.

Enough self-justification, anyway. Let's just accept that I ordered one, and move on. You can't judge me, dude.

Apple sent me the "your order has shipped" mail last Saturday. You know the one - the mail that says your stuff shipped but which really means it's going to be shipped soon. I knew to ignore that one until I had tracking, which I eventually did on Tuesday as Monday was a public holiday in Switzerland (and in the Netherlands, where it was shipped from). By Wednesday lunchtime (the.. 26th) it had reached the local depot. I knew it was unlikely to get delivered that day, but stayed at home for the afternoon anyway mostly because missed deliveries are a bit of a pain in the ass to deal with - in general you can't collect from depots here, you have to arrange a re-delivery.

No delivery, but well, tomorrow for sure, right? Given that my past experiences of deliveries through TNT had always been very good that seemed like a foregone conclusion, so I stayed at home on Thursday 27th as well. My co-workers were starting to mock me a little by this time. 

By mid-afternoon - huh, not even "Out For Delivery", and I dropped TNT a line via their web feedback form. I promptly got an email back from a very helpful customer services representative who assured me that they had a lot of shipments from Apple to deliver, but that they were doing special evening deliveries and mine would be delivered in the evening.  Cool! Well, that's still a day before the official release date, so pretty good going.

So I stayed in all evening.

No delivery.

The next morning (Friday 28th), with the package still merely "In Transit", I mailed my helpful customer services representative ('HCSR' from here on in) to ask why it hadn't been delivered. The reply was that as they'd told me before, they were very busy due to a high volume of shipments, and that if I wanted I could pick it up from their depot that afternoon or Saturday morning. The fact that they had failed to be able to send out for delivery a package that had been sitting at the local depot for nearly 48 hours was, I guess, neither here nor there.

Their depot is in Urdorf, out to the west of Z├╝rich - not the sort of place you'd choose to go to and anyway, TNT are supposed to be a delivery company rather than a pick-it-up-from-our-depot-in-Urdorf company. However, I have a life and a job to go to. I could not in good conscience spend a third day working from home waiting for the same delivery. I replied that okay, if they weren't going to able to guarantee delivering it on Friday, I'd collect it on Saturday morning, no worries. HCSR mailed me back with the details and confirmed that they'd contacted the depot to put me on the list of people who'd be picking up. I even got a second mail correcting the opening hours a little later. I thanked HCSR, we exchanged pleasantries and wished each other a pleasant weekend and I assumed that would be it.

Fast-forward to this morning (that's Saturday 29th). The story, for dramatic effect, now shfts into the present tense. I drive over to Urdorf in a Mobility car and easily recognise the depot by the line of people waiting outside looking annoyed. I join the line, which is being attended to by one rather harassed and grumpy guy who's spending 5-10 minutes finding each shipment in turn. A woman ahead of me is about to go spare when she's told that oh, her shipment has been sent out for delivery despite her calling to ask for it to be held. This, folks, is a really neat trick - arranging for people to collect packages at the depot, then sending then out for delivery at the precise time you can be sure nobody will be in because they're over at the depot attempting to collect the package. Genius!

A couple of people do actually manage to extract deliveries and depart with them to ragged cheers from everyone else in the line, but I, in my turn.. get told that it's out for delivery. 

You. Must. Be. Kidding.

Now I'm really angry. I'm not angry because I'm desperate to get my hands on a shiny gizmo (which, well, I'm not), I'm angry because now I've been screwed around over a simple delivery pretty much beyond the edge of sanity. I've waited at home for two days (one of which was overoptimistic, I'll grant), I've been told a delivery would come at a certain time and had it fail to show up, and now I've actually gone to the effort of setting my alarm on a Saturday morning and spending money on a Mobility car to pick it up from the depot to be told that it wasn't even there. 

Leaving the depot (the line has grown to about 15 people by now) I drive home - Tara is at home but might well have been asleep had a delivery arrived, and besides I didn't want her to get woken up because - as previously mentioned - it's Saturday morning. As of the time of writing I'm waiting in to see if the delivery shows up, which on balance I think it's fair to say I'm not overly optimistic about.

[Update at 1500 - Just now the tracking changed to Unsuccessful delivery attempt - recipient not at home, timed at 12pm. No card in our mailbox and someone has been in all day, so this is now definitely above the level of mere comedy and has become total farce. I called TNT, but the Swiss customer service people don't work weekends and all the folk who pick up the phone can do is rebook shipments. The helpful chap on the phone has requested a redelivery for Monday morning. In the meantime I think I am losing my will to live.]

You know, I don't even care what's in the box now. I'd be equally furious if it was just a box of turds which I'd been expecting to take delivery of. I'd be standing outside the depot yelling WHERE ARE MY TURDS until the police came to take me away. The point here is that TNT Swiss Post, who are supposed to be a delivery company, have been so staggeringly incapable of handling a large volume of shipments which they'd been expecting for some time. This is, I hate to say it, a level of unpreparedness and incompetence which is almost British. It's certainly not Swiss.

Other shippers in other countries (including TNT in other European countries) have got their deliveries in on time, even though they might have had to lay on extra resources to do it. What's even more astonishing is that this is Switzerland, where they're in general really, really good at stuff like this. I also know that TNT Swiss Post are usually speedy and efficient at deliveries (it's because they've delivered stuff a day earlier than expected in the past that I stayed at home on Wednesday).

The final straw was probably the experience at the depot - a big line, only one person dealing with it, no extra effort appearing to be made to ensure that people who had already received very poor service were taken care of. Hell, it wouldn't have hurt to have had a pot of coffee or something out. Maybe a couple of managers could have come in to help out rather than just leaving one guy to deal with everything.

I don't know if anyone from TNT Swiss Post will read this, but if you do - look, the reason I'm angry and frustrated is not that my iPad hasn't been delivered, it's because your company has consistently failed to deliver on its promises, has failed to manage expectations properly, has wasted my time, has cost me money which ended up being wasted, and has failed to cope adequately with a surge in traffic which other carriers (people whose shipments came via UPS report no problems) have been able to handle. From what I read online and from what I saw at the depot, I know there are a lot of customers in a similiar position to me.

TNT Swiss Post failed to rise to the challenge, has let down a lot of customers, and this is a shame because I know you can do better than this.

"Sure we can"? On this occasion, no, you couldn't.
I have just discovered that there are as yet no Google hits for "Swissiciency", which I kind of like as a portmanteau term for "Swiss efficiency", a concept so frequently encountered in Switzerland that it deserves its own word.

Anyway, this post should take care of that. I have more to say on the subject, but I'm too lazy to write that down right now.
Bit of a rush of blog posts recently. I guess I'm getting frustrated with having to squeeze everything into 140-character tweets.

So, election last week, eh? It just happened I was in the UK on polling day, so I was planning to vote in person. The Thatcher government gave the vote to expatriates courtesy of the Representation of the People Act 1985 - presumably because they assumed expats were wealthy types who'd vote Conservative. I'd registered by faxing the registration form to my local council's registration office a few days before the deadline.

Come polling day, Tara went to vote herself in the morning - and just happened to ask the polling clerk to check the register for my name. Nope, it wasn't there. She was given the phone number of the council electoral registration office, which I rang to ask what was up. The person on the other end was helpful but apologetic, and told me that if I'd faxed my form "our fax machine had printed some pages out blank", and mine was probably one of them. Hrm. Not so great - I remember waiting for the fax machine to spit out a confirmation that it had sent the form successfully, so I was pretty sure it was sent okay - must have been a problem at their end. The council were very apologetic, but it was too late for anything to be done. 

No vote for me, then - I knew I wasn't going to get to vote by arguing with the council, but I was suddenly curious to know how many other forms may have been lost by their fax machine or through other means. This became more important when our constituency, Oxford West and Abingdon, was lost to the Tories by a slim margin of 176 votes. How much closer could it have been had everyone who'd wanted to vote been able to vote?

I sent a Freedom of Information request to the council elections office a couple of days ago asking for details of how many forms were lost, how many overseas voters' postal ballots were received after polling day, and various other bits and pieces of statistics. They've replied to firstly point out that the Returning Officer isn't actually bound by the FOI Act, but that they're happy to give me the information once they've finished getting all their numbers together after the election. This will be some time after the 28th of May, and I look forward to hearing from them.

It's very clear that there are major issues with electoral registration for overseas voters in general. For those who have postal votes, ballot papers aren't usually sent out until about a week before polling day - scarcely enough time for them to reach the voter in some countries, and even more unlikely that they'll be returned on time even from many countries in Europe. In the UK, the rule is that postal votes have to be received by polling day, unlike other countries where they can still be opened and taken into account up to a number of days after polling day if the election is close enough to warrant it.

The evidence suggests that overseas voter fraud is still a big problem as well, given the lack of checks and balances in the system which ensures that only people who are entitled to vote are allowed to vote. It's really time to bring the whole system of overseas voting up to date and remove the corruption from the system - to rely on mailing around pieces of paper on very tight deadlines or on faxing through forms to broken fax machines is disenfranchising tens of thousands of expatriates. I'd be in favour of solving the corruption and timing problems by only allowing expats to vote at British diplomatic posts or other designated secure overseas polling stations, for instance, and I don't think anyone would object strongly to being asked to produce some ID to prove they are who they claim to be.

The whole system just seems to be a mess. It's very disheartening to expats who care enough about the country to bother to vote - after all, it's entirely likely that we'll find ourselves back there some day.
There has been much brouhaha from people who should really pay closer attention to the details about the proposals as part of the UK's new coalition agreement for a fixed-term parliament to require a vote of 55% of MPs to dissolve it. 

The essential thing to remember is that the government is not Parliament. The government is formed from among the ranks of Parliament, but the two are different entities and the two motions proposed reflect this:

  • A motion of no confidence is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, and can be passed - as today - with 50% of voting members plus one member. If it passes the government falls and we need to find a new one.
  • A motion of dissolution is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in itself, and in its ability to produce a viable government from among its ranks. It will be able to be passed with 55% of MPs voting in favour. If it passes Parliament is dissolved and a general election is called.
It looks a lot less menacing when phrased in this manner, and what's really inexcusable is the number of MPs who really should already know these kind of details sounding off about how outrageous the 55% threshold is. Is it really? We're looking here at the same parliamentarians who passed the Scotland Act 1998, which defines the parameters under which the Scottish Parliament functions. The Scottish house already has a mechanism to dissolve itself in this manner - but there it requires a two-thirds majority. In other places with Westminster-style parliaments this is not uncommon.

What's really happening is that with fixed-term Parliaments, the Prime Minister relinquishes the right to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament at a time of his or her choosing. There therefore needs to be a new mechanism to give Parliament the ability to dissolve itself - as a no confidence motion only forces the resignation of the government.

In a coalition government or under proportional representation, it's quite likely that there will be multiple coalition possibilities. If the current Con/Lib coalition were to fall to a confidence motion, there would be nothing to stop Labour trying to put together a coalition of its own (perhaps the 'coalition of the progressive' touted last week) and being invited to form a new government by the Queen if it looks like they can make it work. This is essential if we are to move away from a de facto two-party system, but also to prevent tiffs among coalition partners from forcing elections at the drop of a hat. Only if a new Government can't be found would Parliament elect to dissolve itself and force an election, and compared to the countries where 2/3 is the requirement I don't think 55% is an entirely rebellion-proof threshold.

I've got no problem with people being opposed to the 55% threshold - that's democracy - but I do have a problem with people not getting their facts right, as I am an obsessive nerd who cannot stand it when someone is wrong on the Internet.
So, the latest Apple Jesus-pad is coming to Switzerland (and some other European countries) at the end of this month. If you want to use the 3G version the data plan situation is a little confusing - Apple's online store only shows you the Orange offering, while their actual product pages also list Swisscom as having iPad tariffs. My personal choice here would be to go with Swisscom as their 3G coverage is better, but before making a call I thought it would be wise to compare the two offerings.

Swisscom's NATEL data easy flex tariffs are simpler and a little cheaper:
  • Fr5 per calendar day used (100MB)
  • Fr19 per month (300MB)
  • Fr39 per month (2GB)
  • The charge for a SIM is Fr19.90, including Fr20 credit.

Orange Internet Everywhere Prepay for iPad is more confusing, but might be better for heavyweight users:
  • Fr5 per calendar day used, unlimited data (3 days inclusive with SIM purchase)
  • Fr10 monthly plus 3.50 per calendar day 
  • Fr49 monthly for unlimited data
  • Fr59 monthly for unlimited data, inclusing 2500 minutes of access to wireless hotspots at home and abroad
  • A SIM costs Fr10 if you buy it from the Apple store, but is currently on special offer at the Orange online store for Fr5.
  • If you're young (under 27) or a student, Orange also have the Internet Everywhere Young option that provides unlimited data for Fr39/month.
Roaming gets a bit more complex. In general, both offerings can be summarised as "you'll get reamed", but Orange do have a deal for light roaming users - first 2MB for Fr4 daily. Swisscom's are a little more complex - trying to work out which is better for varying usage patterns gives me a headache, but assuming Swisscom's World Option flex is available on the iPad plans, that's probably better assuming you roam more often than once a month.

Which is better? Probably not much difference each way for everyday use.
A couple of years ago I posted Neil Kinnock's legendary words, delivered at a speech in Bridgend the night before the 1983 general election which returned Margaret Thatcher in a landslide driven on the patriotic fervour of the Falklands War. 

Over the last couple of days my fear of the shadow of a radical Conservative government returning to the UK has crystallised into out and out terror, and I found myself thinking of Kinnock's words again after reading Johann Hari's article on the Conservatives' "model" council. Times have changed, of course - now they're a rallying cry for voting for the Liberal Democrats, not for Labour (much could apply to a Labour government as well) - but they're still some of the most powerful words spoken in post-war politics. 

I was thinking of rewriting, in my amateurish way, Kinnock's magnificent words to describe an economically troubled Britain under a Conservative majority in 2010. However, once I reread them I found that so many of Kinnock's lines can be used today without change that, well, all I had to do was to add a couple of lines about issues of today which weren't yet mainstream issues in 1983.

The following, therefore, is 99% Neil Kinnock and 1% me (and I apologise to the now Lord Kinnock for mangling his work, especially as this is only a half-hour rush job). All I've done is changed a couple of names, added a few lines, and rewritten the lines about Tebbitism and "you will be quiet". I know I'm not the first person to have done this, but this is my take on why voting Conservative tomorrow just because you don't like what Labour has done is a bad idea. Don't give them the mandate they think they deserve to have. Vote for what you believe in.

If David Cameron is elected as Prime Minister, I warn you.

  • I warn you that you will have pain -
    When healing and relief depend on payment.

  • I warn you that you will have ignorance -
    When talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

  • I warn you that you will have poverty -
    When pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won't pay in an economy that can't pay.

  • I warn you that you will be isolated -
    When the country shuns its neighbours and the doors are slammed shut to even the most desperate, we will be shunned in turn.

  • I warn you that you will be cold - 
    When fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

  • I warn you that you will be ashamed -
    When the poor and vulnerable plead desperately for help, but the services they need have been eliminated to keep taxes low for the rich.

  • I warn you that you will be a second-class citizen -
    When the religion and the prejudices of the minority are used to alienate and discriminate against the different.

  • I warn you that you will be quiet -
    When constant surveillance, ever-increasing police powers, and the lurid threat of terrorism are used to muzzle you into silent obedience.

  • I warn you that you must not expect work - 
    When many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies.

  • I warn you that you will be powerless -
    When the corrupt two-party system is perpetuated forever through boundary manipulation and manufactured fear of change.

  • I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

  • I warn you that you will have defence of a sort -
    With a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

  • I warn you that you will be home-bound -
    When fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

  • I warn you that you will borrow less - 
    When credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If David Cameron wins, he will be more a Leader than a Prime Minister. That power produces arrogance and when it is toughened by tabloidism and flattered and fawned upon by spineless sycophants and the Murdoch media, that arrogance corrupts absolutely.

If David Cameron wins -

  • I warn you not to be ordinary.
  • I warn you not to be young.
  • I warn you not to be different.
  • I warn you not to fall ill.
  • I warn you not to get old.

- based on a speech by Neil Kinnock, Bridgend, 7 June 1983

Just a quick post (yeah, I should post here more) as a few of us on Twitter found this article kind of interesting in that it purports to show a long-term declining trend in the combined vote share of the two main political parties in the UK, which they claim will lead inevitably to a hung parliament if not in this general election then soon.

Well, the graph doesn't quite tell the whole story, so I went to the same source (thanks, the Guardian!) and plotted the full data set, including that from before 1990 where the article's author had chosen to start. Here it is:

share_of_vote_1984-2010.png

Rather different, isn't it? The main points which arise here are:

  • Saying hung parliaments and electoral reform are inevitable just isn't true - people who want to see change still have to work for it.
  • The Lib Dems (well, their ancestors) have been polling 30% or more before during the heyday of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the early 1980s
  • Support for the main two parties seems to wax and wane, but when we include the data from before 1990 there's far more waxing going on there seemed to be when the data was being used more selectively.
  • Support for "Others" has been on the rise all along.
  • There really isn't any room for complacency on the part of Lib Dem supporters!

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