Category Archives: Rants

Software projects that are over-budget and late: please, don’t blame us…

[Originally drafted in March 2010, published February 2011]

For many decades now, developers and IT departments have been at the receiving end of a lot flack. Flack stemming from the fact that many software projects cost more than originally estimated and take longer to reach production than previously thought. Typically, it’s the fault of the folks near the bottom of the tree: the developers or the IT department. This blog post is a tale of woe that highlights the blame culture that we live in and how this author believes that blame to be misdirected, at least in some cases.

Most software projects have some sort of plan, a list of activities, a product backlog, user stories, perhaps even a schedule. Regardless of your religious view in the waterfall or agile space, you will have requirements noted down somewhere using whatever technique floats your boat. You may also have an “end date” (aka a go live date) that is either dictated by some form of time estimate based on the list of activities or, worse, by a third party. Invariably, you may not have a lot of say in the estimation process…you have to hope that the person is reasonably good at estimating how long it will take a somebody else to complete a task. Remember, that person is estimating how much time somebody else needs to complete a task: a task in a domain they most probably know very little about (“stick a button on that form there, how hard can it be?”)

Thinking about scope: can you produce a flowchart outlining your current process, the process that you want a magical application to replace? If you can’t produce a flowchart, how do you expect other people to understand the start point, the processing and the end point? You can expect some help from your developer, programmer or system implementor when it comes to documenting your current workflow; equally you can expect some help from them when it comes to documenting your requirements. However, don’t turn to your developer, programmer or system implementor and tell them that you don’t have the time to document the requirements or document the workflow. If you don’t have time to tell us what you want in the first place, we know (from experience) that you’ll not have time to help us with user acceptance testing later on in the project – assuming we can build a system worthy of user acceptance testing in the absence of any real requirements.

All too often developers and IT departments have been getting it in the neck for project failures. However, little has been said about the fact that the blame really lies with those further up the project hierarchy. Failure to provide adequate work scope / definition results in confusion and the potential for large amounts of scrap and rework. Developers don’t mind throwing code away as a result of refactoring, however they do mind shelving code because it has suddenly become redundant or is now not part of the solution.

In a recent current project I was told “we don’t have time to write a specification”. However, we do have the time to overrun by many months and we do have the budget to fund the additional development and to cover the opportunities that are lost. With no end in sight, developer morale takes a hit, they lose direction. Similarly, there can be nothing worse for a developer to be on a project where s/he doesn’t know what they are meant to be doing? And worse, if they do find out what they are meant to be doing, to have it change from one week to the next. Or even to have it [the glimmer of hope, the taste of the requirement] change from day to day.

In the absence of a specification, feature creep is inevitable. Development cycles feel, and often are, endless. Even with an understanding and helpful client, the absence of a specification is a golden ticket for those who want everything from the system. Specification-less projects suffer from feature creep and work scope additions. All of the “nice to haves” suddenly come out of the woodwork. And because there’s little in the way of contractual documentation in place to lay down the law or draw the line in the sand, there’s nothing you can do apart from argue your case against adding features. The time you spend arguing your case, is time you’re not working on the project, you’re not progessing the project towards completion, the delay gets worse. Mind you, perhaps it’s a good thing that you’re not working on the project, after all, do you know what you’re meant to be doing?

Software development is a complicated process.  Unstructured and unproven time/budget “guesstimation” just doesn’t work in this industry.  You can’t say to software developer “two weeks” to write an enterprise class system that replicates the functionality of commercial of the shelf software costing many £000’s per license.  Two weeks is how long it might take you to cut’n’paste a spreadsheet together…it’s hardly long enough to develop all but the most simple functionality.  In the absence of a specification, database schemas are an ever-changing beast.  In most data-driven applications, the database schema is comparable to the foundations of a building.  The foundations are not something you want to change half way through the development.  Granted, clever people have written applications with dynamic database schemas…but they weren’t written in two weeks, or part thereof. 

After the database design, there’s the user interface.  Yes, it is easy to drop a button on a form!  What’s not so easy is what that button does when you click on it.  Anything beyond MessageBox.Show(“Hello, world!”); is where the time is spent.  I’m grateful to have seen multi-page specifications for the action behind a single button – if you can find somebody willing to invest the time and effort in writing such detail, the payoff is amazing. However, such people are few and far between. In today’s day and age, agile is where it’s at and user stories are King. Ultimately, it’s an emotive topic and one that I will not debate here (although you are free to discuss in the comments) – I don’t mind how you capture requirements, as long as you do.

Software developers struggle to work with “what’s in your head today”, knowing from experience that it will change tomorrow. Even in the agile world, there has to be an element of commitment: if you change your mind day after day, you’ll get a reputation and folks will end up using baseball bats to extract requirements. That’s not a good look, trust me on that. Oh, and don’t take the picture too literally: don’t do things on a handshake, that doesn’t work either: put something in writing, a contract, something that sets the scene and defines the lay of the land.

Requirements: however you document them – they are the light at the end of the tunnel for you and for the developer / development team. If your developer / development team ask you for “better requirements” very early in the project (or, shoot, even at the very start of the project), don’t dismiss it. Listen to them, they probably have a point. They are the folks who’ll be writing the software and they are the folks who’ll struggle to prepare a deliverable based on incomplete or inaccurate scribbles on whiteboard or sheets of paper.

Requirements: abuse them at your peril. In the absence of requirements, prepare yourself for a bottom-less pit that will consume time, money, other potential projects/opportunities and the morale of your development team.

Considered Reading

Santander: a bunch of stupid bankers, you suck

12.05.2011 – update
After being contacted by BBC Watchdog, Santander telephoned my wife to offer an apology and £100 (cheque) compensation. They accepted that things could have been done better and the complaint handled in a shorter time-frame. Whilst we had pretty much accepted an earlier offer of £20 credited to the account card, the apology and the extra £80 were in line with my request in the a letter of complaint to Santander in January 2011. Santander’s apology has been accepted.

Santander bank has made huge inroads into the UK finance sector. Abbey National, for example, suddenly became Santander…and from what I’ve heard from at least one customer, they’re not doing too good a job of it. Similarly, I’ve read an awful lot about how Santander are at the top of list of banks that consumers complain about. As you might expect, given the title of this blog post, I am about to “add one” to that pile of complaints.

Neither my wife or I have bank accounts with Santander, however my wife does/did have an Evans store card. In their “great buy up”, Santander acquired the Evans store card business along with Asda, BHS, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Wallis and Outfit. It’s likely that they’ve got the store cards for those outlets too. Some evidence of this can be found over at Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert forums, here and here. And they’re not getting any better, as this post suggests.

Anyway, on to the problem that Santander created on my wife’s Evans card…and thus a problem that I have to work to solve.

During November 2010 my wife received her Evans card statement. It showed the previous balance and a payment received covering that same balance. It also showed a Late Payment Fee of £12. Naturally my wife was concerned and telephoned Nikita at Santander – Nikita assured my wife that it was their error and the £12 would be refunded. Here’s a copy of the statement:

Indeed, Nikita’s information was confirmed by Santander’s Tim Woods (Head of Santander Contact Centers) when he wrote to my wife on the 23rd of November 2010:

Sounded good. Sounded like Santander might have been proactive and sorted it out themselves. Great. Mr Woods works for Geoban – “Geoban is an internal company to Banco Santander, providing Operational Excellence to the Group Companies”. Operational Excellence, can’t get better than that, we’re in good hands.

At the end of November another Evans card statement arrived. It showed that the £12 late payment fee had been refunded as promised. However, it also showed another late payment fee had been applied. My wife telephoned Santander on the 13th of December and spoke with Shiraz. Shiraz did exactly what Nikita did, assured my wife that it was their error and the £12 would be refunded. Here a copy of that statement:

Further communication from Santander resulted in my wife asking Maddie on the 31st of December 2010 to close the account. Maddie assured my wife that the £12 late payment fee and this new amount of £4 were both Santander errors and that she would sort things out. Santander’s Andrew Hall wrote to my wife. Mr Hall is the Head of Collections Contact Centre at Santander Cards UK, he’s “a highly motivated, results focused Senior Manager with extensive Consumer Finance experience. Proven skill set in people management and process and performance improvement within Collections and Bad Debt functions”. Mr Hall, you might be highly motivated, but my wife is highly demotivated…I think you could do better, don’t you?

In between Christmas and New Year, things took a turn for the worse. Santander had the cheek to send out a Notice of Sums in Arrears letter. Of course, my wife was upset enough at the first two mistakes made by Santander, this pushed her over the edge, there were tears. How can a bank be allowed to do this? And for the measly sum of £4, created by their own error. Here’s that letter:

However, early in the New Year, we received an automated telephone call at 0820 on the 2nd of January 2011 reminding us of the “debt”. I myself spoke to some Santander guy called Kirt, who said “I can’t do nothing because of the Data Protection Act” in what I believe to be a Liverpool accent…double negatives, they suck too. So clearly Maddie hadn’t closed the account as requested a few days earlier. Kirt told me that the “telephone system” can take a few days to update itself and that we weren’t to worry about it. Incredible – the 2nd of January was a Sunday. What sort of company telephones its customers at that sort of time on a Sunday?

It seems that the Late Payment Fee is something that just gets refunded and reapplied. It won’t go away until somebody at Santander pulls their finger(s) out and accepts that there is a problem they need to sort out.

All of the telephone calls that my wife made to Santander were to their 0871 number…at a cost of 10p per minute. After a little bit of searching, it turns out that 020 8181 0000 should also work, as will 0113 280 7080. I’ll be looking to recover the cost of calls from Santander -they can’t expect us to cover the cost for their mistakes.

I was planning to switch my current account over to Santander in order to take advantage of the £100 switching fee. This made sense as my current account is with a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) branch in England. Santander are taking over many of the English branches of RBS – I figured I would switch, collect the £100 and be in the same boat. However, this incident has taught me a lot about Santander, they’re not a bank I want anything to do with. As such, I have instigated an intra-bank switch, from my RBS branch in England, to one north of the border here in Scotland.

What’s next? Well, I hope that this blog post kicks Santander where it hurts – their stupidity and inability to rectify a simple self-made error frankly astounds me. If we make a tiny error, perhaps by going overdrawn by a single penny, the banks are the first to hit us hard. I’ve already had a short e-mail exchange with ‘’, who rather amazingly said “we don’t deal with the cards”! So now I’ve included ‘’ in the loop.

Santander has most likely cost Evans my wife’s custom. It might not have been much, however in today’s climate, all custom is good. It seems that if Santander are to improve, it will take the likes of Evans, etc. to tell them. However, the damage has been done…

Moral of this post: avoid Santander bank. If your RBS account is with a branch that is about to be taken over by Santander, start thinking about switching – use uSwitch to help you if necessary.

Sky downgrade their “Mid” package from 40GB to 10GB per month – FAIL

How to lose customers in 15 months

We’ve been Sky subscribers since February 2008. We moved to Sky because the reception from Freeview was (and still is) frankly appalling – it was great for many months during 2007…then had a bad period after summer 2007…then was great over Christmas 2007…then it was plain useless in January 2008. Naturally I tried a few options: a new aerial, checked the transmitter information and tried a different receiver unit. Nothing worked well enough to rely on. Sky seemed to be the solution to our problems. However it wasn’t without sacrifice, or so I thought…

The sacrifice: I was paying Zen Internet £29.99 per month for their 0.5MB broadband package – yes, that was perhaps a tad expensive, however it just worked, perfectly. After doing my sums, it looked like I could get Sky TV for £16 per month, plus £5 for their “Mid” broadband package (offering a 40GB per month cap). Add in a couple of “mixes” for a £1 a pop and I was up at £23 per month. The apparent win: TV and Internet for a £6.99 per month saving. What could go wrong?

Indeed, what could go wrong? Broadband speeds had increased to from 0.5MB up to 2MB+, a win! And all those Sky TV channels too, a huge win! And more episodes of Star Trek than I’ll ever have time to watch, huge win, for me at least! However, the winning was short-lived. The broadband connection has suffered from a lot of downtime – that green Skype icon went grey all too often. I had no such problems with Zen Internet. The TV subscription wasn’t without its problems too, as we’ll see later in this rant.

Well, in November 2009 Sky wrote to me advising that the price of their Broadband Mid package was to double. The cost was £5, it was going up to £10. I hadn’t even been with them a full nine months and they hit me with a price rise of 100%. Utterly scandalous. However, in the grand scheme of things, and this is something that Sky presumably knew, £10 is still reasonably good value for a 40GB monthly package. I did complain to Mark Anderson ( – granted I did get an e-mail back from some sort of ‘escalated help desk’, but it rather lamely asked me for my postal address.

Sent: Tue 02/12/2008 21:49

Dear Mr Anderson

Thank you for your letter of November 2008 advising me of a £5 or 100% rise in the cost of Sky Broadband.

I realise that £5 is very competitive and that was one of the two reasons we switched to your TV and Broadband services.

However, in the 10 months that we’ve been customers, the cost of the TV service has risen and now the cost of the broadband provision is rising.

Further, I record a lot of Star Trek on the Sky+ unit, however it won’t let me use the COPY option to move the episodes to DVD – because 80GB of personal space is not nearly enough. With no means of recording the episodes for watching later, it really means I personally don’t have much use for the Sky+ box…I don’t have time to watch what I’ve recorded and I can’t move the recorded content to DVD overnight…there is no point in recording anything.

If memory serves me, it’s a 12 month contract that I’m signed up for. Sending out a 100% price hike notification at this stage in the contract is just plain crazy.

Please be advised that I will be re-considering my options at the end of January 2009…you would be surprised how many friends and colleagues are telling me how good FreeSat is…Humax do wonderful HDD recorders too…

…and I’ve been chatting to other Sky “Mid” users, they haven’t received their 100% price hike notification yet…I do hope that you’ve not been selective about who is being subjected to the price hike?


To make matters worse, during November 2008 there was the great copy protection fiasco, which severely limited my use of the Sky+ service. I was not at all happy about that, so much so, The Guardian picked up on it and quoted a large chunk of that blog entry.

Last week, at the end of June 2009, Sky’s Mark Anderson wrote to me again. This time he was advising of ANOTHER price hike. In a nutshell, my Sky TV subscription was about to rise, making a total of £30 per month. Again, a scandalous mid-contract price rise. Of secondary concern, the font size used in Sky letters is very small – I can still read it with ease, however I’m sure that some subscribers might struggle. The letter itself makes no mention what changes to expect, but refers to an “enclosed leaflet”. Clever. Very clever. And utterly scandalous.

The leaflet that accompanied the letter was titled: “Sky Broadband now even better”, “All for the same low price”. Here’s a snapshot of what it looked like:

Looks like it’s just a re-branding, nothing to worry about…

…until you look closer. The 40GB monthly cap Sky Mid package is being re-branded to Everyday…with a monthly cap of 10GB.

It has something to do with “bring the usage allowance in line with what the majority of customers actually use”…HELLO? Granted Sky rather wisely included a paragraph stating that we could cancel the broadband portion of the contract without charge (well, thanks for that, from the company who raise their prices mid-contract). I am an individual, I do not like be grouped into a pot and treated like the “majority of customers”. I chose the 40GB package for a reason: it was ideal for my needs. Sky, you have moved the goal posts, changed the size of the nets and made the pitch four times wider at your end. Have I told you that this is scandalous? Utterly scandalous.

[UPDATE 07/07/2007 – after checking out the speed test here:, it turns out I’m not even getting the average speeds for my package. Yet “more for less”.]

Given my distance from the BT exchange, it’s unlikely I’ll ever see more than 2700Kbps (via download and 160Kbps upload speeds. Therefore, the other so-called upgrades do not appeal or apply to me.

So now I am paying 30% more than I was 15 months ago FOR LESS. A lot less as it happens: where did Sky channel 795 go? I’m trying to learn Spanish and may well have chosen to pay the extra £1 per month just for a single channel…however it has vanished from the channel line up. Scandalous, utterly scandalous. “Paying more for less”, that should be Sky’s tag line: I’m not the first person to say this, but Mark, I’m sorry to say this: you’re charlatans. [Update 06/07/2009 – Channel 795 has reappeared. However, let’s not forget this thing called Sky Anytime – it takes up 80GB of my 160GB of space, it records channels that I cannot get with my subscription: more “getting less”]

“Sky Believe in better” – I will be switching broadband provider as soon as possible and will be reconsidering our TV options too – that is something you can put money on, you had better believe it. FreeSat and Freeview may cost me upfront, but at least they don’t demand money downstream. I’ll be ‘phoning 08705 515 515 to request my MAC key next week.

Sky: Paying more for less.

Charity collections at supermarket checkouts…is my idea really so hard to understand?

Here in the UK, charity collections at supermarket checkouts have become popular.

The idea is simple: one or two volunteers, usually youngsters, stand at the checkout where the bag dispenser is located. Of course, all this does is ensure that the said supermarket’s attempts to reduce our reliance on plastic bags is wasted effort, but that’s another debate to be had elsewhere.

The volunteers ask if you would like a hand packing your shopping into either store-provided bags or your own bags if you remember to take them into the store with you. You then stand around looking like a lemon whilst children pack your bag on your behalf. The theory, and you are under no obligation I guess, is that you will then throw some cash into their collection bucket which is conveniently located at the till.

For those customer who pay by cash, this is probably an easy thing as they’re likely to have been given some change once the shopping has been paid for.

However, for those of us in the cashless society, I rarely have any change on my person. Indeed, I may well be a Scotsman, however that doesn’t make me mean and tight-fisted as my Countryman’s stereotype portrays. No sir, I like to chip in to the odd charity donation…

So my solution to this problem is simple. Most stores have a crib card for items that do not scan very well. This crib card contains bar codes for the problem products. I have suggested on more than one occasion, to both the stores and the leaders of the charity volunteers that there is a mechanism put in place for “scanning an extra £1” via a bar code. The extra £1 is added to the shopping bill. At the end of the day/week/whatever, the store issues the charity with the funds collected using the said bar code.

It’s win-win, the charity capture the cashless society, the supermarket are seen to be helping the charity.

Surely it’s simple? Why then, do I get a glazed look when I explain it to people?

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Sky+ built-in COPY failed during November, Star Trek DVD mountain!

[As quoted in the Guardian SKY HASSLES:]

If you caught my tweets last month, you may have noticed that I noted that my Sky+ box was generating copy protection signals preventing my DVD recorder from recording the episodes of Star Trek from Virgin One and Bravo. Without going into huge amounts of detail, I figured that any time a “What’s on next” caption appeared and occasionally during advert breaks, a Macrovision-like signal was issued causing my DVD recorder to stop recording.

Whatever you may be thinking, I believe that I am entitled to record these episodes for a number of reasons. Firstly, I don’t have time to watch them live – I have a day job, a wife and a kid, time is in short supply. Secondly, the Sky+ hard drive is woefully small at 160GB, of which we get 80GB of personal space, whoopee (yes, I will be doing something about that later). Thirdly, I am simply recording what I would have watched anyway, I’m not recording it to keep per say…I’m happy to buy the DVD boxed set for that. And to be honest, Star Trek is *all* that I watch via Sky, all other programmes I could get via Freeview (if we had a decent signal where I live, moot point).

Courtesy of Liam Westley, today’s copy of the Guardian carried this article by George Cole. Sky could be so good for you…I don’t think so (sorry, couldn’t resist that, Gary!) This explains a lot.

In my humble opinion this is a huge FAIL for Sky. I had even gone to the lengths of buying one of these cables in order to normalise the signal from the Sky+ box to the DVD recorder. Sadly that cable failed miserably, dead on arrival…now I’m embroiled in the returns and refund process, more hassle…all thanks to Sky.

I will of course be testing the COPY feature again this month. However in the meantime, I have some 20+ episodes of Deep Space Nine to catch up on…and I can’t dump them to DVD as I have been doing most nights for the last 8-9 months. Yes, I do have 100+ DVDs chock full of Star Trek to catch up on!

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How to Talk to (Geek)Girls Online…Etiquette (link through)

Via Twitter (@UMLGuy), I found myself reading a blog post by Dana Coffey (@crazeegeekchick)

Now, even if I wasn’t married, I wouldn’t dream of doing any of the crazy things that Dana mentions in her blog entry. It’s just not the done thing.

Take Dana’s rule of all rules as an example:

It never ceases to amaze me that men online feel perfectly comfortable asking me about my sexual proclivities or describing their own – and they don’t even know the color of my eyes.

Come guys, whoever you are, wherever you are: please take heed of Dana’s advice…you’re letting the side of decency down.

Here’s the full blog post: How to Talk to (Geek)Girls Online– Social Networking Etiquette

Yet a lot of firms have instigated a blanket ban…

Just yesterday one of my friends e-mailed me with a small Outlook 2007 font size problem. There is, it appears, no solution as yet. However, unrelated to his original question, I found this link that I knew would be of interest to him in his professional capacity.

I wasn’t all that surprised to hear that his firm block sites such as Twitter. It got me thinking: Twitter, for me and for many of the folks I follow and those who follow me, it’s all about the conversation. Of course for me it’s a software development conversation – at least for the vast majority of the time. Generally speaking, I would think that most employers would be keen on peer to peer conversations and learning opportunities.

The amount of non-work related conversation that I am exposed to whilst sat at my desk (both in Edinburgh and London) is huge and very much irrelevant. Are you interested in your colleague’s telephone conversations? Open plan environments must be nightmare for those folks who can’t use a telephone quietly. I endured overhearing a 20 minute call between the chap sitting at the opposite desk and his umbrella company – I know what his weekly shopping bill is, his weekly rent, credit card spending and his date of birth…and that’s what I can recall without thinking. I was trying to work whilst this conversation took place – however since it was so close and so loud, I was very much distracted. This was just one such distraction that caught up with me today – I know that I’m not alone – blocking out the periphery noise whilst you’re trying to work isn’t easy.

The couple of times a hour that I might want to check-in with my peers, find out what they’re up to, perhaps ask them a taxing work-related question, in some organisations I’m denied that privilege. Compare the level of conversation and usefulness of Twitter to the average office-based morning chatter, it soon becomes clear that employee productivity is thwarted by in-person social networking. Of course, I’m not saying that there is little value provided by in-person conversations, far from it. What I’m saying is the amount of “noise” generated overall isn’t good for productivity, yet little is ever done to address the lost time, the distraction, the interruptions and the stress that such scenarios can create. Instead, the more focused avenues, such as Twitter, are blocked.

In a nutshell
The content that I get from Twitter is far more tuned towards the work I do. Blanket bans are often the result of the few spoiling a good thing for the many.

Next time on Murphy’s Rant
Printing on both sides of the paper, an environmentalists dream or just a source of frustration?

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Murphy’s Week – 23/06/08

On Monday…
Flight delays.  Once again I find myself shocked and surprised at the audacity of my fellow traveller.  I have started being very selective in my choice of seat – more often than not I am sitting beyond row 13 as the rear of the aircraft often boards first.  Boarding first has its advantages – for me, it lets me get first pick of the overhead lockers.  The overhead locker is important – after the LHR T5 fiasco, I no longer carry hold luggage for anything other than family trips and where I’m away for more than 5-6 days.  On this occasion, I had secured my bag in the overhead locker, however in order to allow the gentleman in the opposite aisle seat to do likewise, I had moved one row back and was standing behind my allocated seat.  Like a torpedo aimed at the rear of the aircraft, an OAP with ruler-like precision clearly thought we were invisible – she was exercising her “right” to move toward the rear whilst preventing others moving forward.  The chap opposite just shook his head; I was frankly stunned.  However, it happens more often than not.

On Tuesday…
I read an interesting piece in The New Statesman magazine by Shazia Mirza.  Shazia closes her article with the phrase “Google me then”.  It seems that the brand name Google has become the Hoover of the 21st century.  Hoover make vacuum cleaners (amongst other things) – however a lot of folks say “let’s Hoover the carpet” when they don’t own a Hoover product.  People are now using the word Google in place of “search” or “look on the Internet” – I guess this is the kudos associated with being [close to] first to market.  Kudos to The New Statesman for opening up their back issues for free viewing.

I travelled home this evening.  After the T5 opening fiasco, I bought myself a “right sized” cabin bag that is able to hold 4-5 days worth of wearables and all my gadgets and laptop. Usually this bag goes through security without question.  Not tonight.  Fortunately I had a little time to spare, so the full bag search that followed didn’t hold me back too much.  Apparently, I had a corkscrew in my bag…given the amount of travelling I do, that’s the last thing I would pack.  Besides, there are equally as dangerous items that are allowed in the cabin: BA meals are on glass plates, coffee/tea served in china mugs, propelling pencils, broken credit cards….)  Anyway, I digress.  A full bag search involved decanting everything into three trays: one for clothing, books, etc. the other two for electrical goods.  Oddly enough, no corkscrew was found. 20 minutes of time consumed though.

Dell’s D430 laptop is rather neat. I was able to get some typing done mid-flight…whilst the food tray was still in place.  If ever I need to buy a laptop myself, the small foot-print devices will be high on my list of choices.  I found that using Dark Room (thanks to @dchristiansen for the recommendation) helps focus the mind and hinders anybody looking over your shoulder hoping to read what you’re typing.

On Friday…Blackpool – Arrival
Hotel check-in. Discover that the hotel has mysteriously lost its liquor license and is unable to serve booze until further notice.  Some early warning would have been appreciated, I could have brought my own booze down with me.

That night we discover that our “family room” is an oven.  The one fan that is in the room is not suitable – largely because the “family” bit of the room was actually bunk beds in a separate room – which in its own right is actually pretty good. Kudos to the hotel reception though, they quickly brought up a second fan and an extension cable.

On Saturday….Blackpool – Day 1
At Blackpool Pleasure Beach…

It seems that the thrill I get from rollercoasters is getting hard to find in Blackpool.  I’ve done the Pepsi Max Big One, Avalanche, the Big Dipper, Space Invader 2, Infusion and the Tango Ice Blast – none of which are really able to float my boat.  I guess I have to go to Cedar Point and try the Top Thrill Dragster.  Space Invader 2 was a disappointment.  The queue took 45 minutes to process for what was a 2 minute ride.

A lot of places in Blackpool stop serving food at 2000.  Even on a Saturday.  This caused some problems.  Room service in our hotel (no liquor license, remember) managed to offer French Fries and rounds of sandwiches.  My wife ordered two portions of fries and two rounds on white bread…and received one round on white bread, the other on brown bread.  Still it was good service otherwise.  My dinner came from the local Nisa…a BLT, a bag of ice and a couple of tins of beer!

On Sunday…Blackpool – Day 2
Today we took a tram south towards Blackpool Tower.  I don’t think I’d ever reached the top of the tower before, so today was a “tick box moment” (BucketList—).  I took our son all the way to the top of the tower – he was un-fazed by the transparent (but heavily scratched) floor at 380ft- the Walk of Faith as it’s known.  The view from the top was worth it, as was the time spent in the tower facility itself (£10 for adults and £5 for children).

Later today we went to Sealife, just next door to Blackpool Tower.  We had a couple of buy one get one free passes so the entry cost was very acceptable: £12.50 for adults.  There are plenty of fish and other sea creatures to look at here and there’s plenty of information to read and take it too.  The only thing I didn’t like about my Sealife experience was the “exit strategy” – getting out was a maze of stairs and doors, not really very disabled-person-friendly (we had a pushchair).  There is a lift at the start, however that would mean going against the flow of visitors (it’s like Ikea should be, it’s best to go through the exhibit in one direction only).  The exit itself is weird: you end up coming out of the Dr. Who shop…

Photos here.

The Yates Wine Lodge “experience”
Looking for a dinner venue…  After a rather successful day taking in the sights, we found ourselves looking for a place to have an early evening meal.  Now, picture the scene: wife, 3 year old son, mother-in-law and invited guest, the centre of Blackpool, around 1730 in the evening.  We wander around for a bit, pass through the Winter Gardens, everything was closing up. 

We move on to the likes of Talbot Street where I spot an O’Neill’s Irish bar – a decent pint I think to myself.  Wrong: “no children allowed on any part of the premises”.  Too bad, we’ll take our custom elsewhere, now and in the future – one sign kills your custom. 

Less than 100 yards away, we find a Yates Wine Lodge (Blackpool North).  Now these places have a pretty good name.  My wife, mother-in-law and guest decided to have the Sunday roast.  It was Sunday, in England after all – they do roast very well.  Not at Yates, “roast is off today”.  OK, we’ll take three gammon steaks instead, and a bottle of Echo Falls Merlot.  The server turns around, looks in the ‘fridge, consults with his boss then says “No Merlot, we have what you see in the fridge, Rose and the white”.   Right, I keep my red wine in the same fridge as my white and rose.

However, whilst attempting to order food and drinks, the server took a call on his “radio” – he excused himself and disappeared.  Moments later, he appeared from the kitchen carrying three plates of hot food, clearly destined for another customer.  Hold on, we were mid-order. 

We concede and choose the Echo Falls Rose.  The bottle duly appears at the bar, closely followed by three glasses.  Three rather dirty glasses.  I reject the glasses and ask for clean ones…hey, I had the mother-in-law with me! 

Meanwhile, the server (behind the bar) is trying to process my credit card…my BAA credit card with pictures of foreign national on it.  The server had some issue using the credit card so was forced to call in the manager.  Now, the manager’s appearance was so similar to the pub manager bloke in Men Behaving Badly – it was uncanny.  He looked at my credit card and went for the swipe card that authenticated him for that till.  You won’t believe what he said next: “a credit card with foreign people on it, we don’t want that in here”.  Of course, he didn’t realise that I was right beside him when he said this…the server however, did.  The manager left the scene, with my eyes following his every move – I was very tempted to take my business elsewhere.  By now, the server was shaking, probably wondering what I was about to do.  You know, I’d love to be a ghost customer in these situations – working for head office, weeding out the establishments that fail to meet even the most basic of customer service standards.

The food itself was perfectly acceptable, even though the garlic bread with cheese was cold.  However the toilet was unclean, there was a lack of toilet paper and there were many flying and crawling insects.  Similarly, the cleanliness of the area around and behind the bar itself was unacceptable.  We cleaned the table with a wet wipe, it was demonstrated that the tables needed cleaned rather than dusted down.

We’re unlikely to use this chain of eateries in the future.

Here’s a photograph of the said establishment.

Blackpool 2008 Summary
Blackpool opening hours: they suck. 

Sealife: good value, worth it.

Staff on the trams, they’re pretty damn good. 

Yates Wine Lodge Blackpool North sucks.  Tweet 1Tweet 2. Tweet 3.

Blackpool Tower: good value, worth it.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach: expensive, consistency between the ticket selling facilities needs to be achieved though.  My son’s wristband wasn’t put on tightly so I went to the nearest ticket booth to have it re-issued – I was told to go back to the main entrance!  At the main entrance they asked for the original receipt – which was with my mother-in-law elsewhere in the facility.  Thankfully they re-issued it after I explained who much effort it would take to find her quickly.  Something needs to be done to manage the queuing situation: waiting 45 minutes for a 2 minute ride takes a lot of time out of your day…

Profiteering from fuel shortage…

In the midst of a fuel crisis, I was somewhat appalled to learn that some garages are raising the price of their fuel…the most famous case so far appears to be of the Rix garage in Kirkcaldy (the address of which I believe is Bridge Street). Whilst the garage in question blame a computer fault, we all know that computers are only as good as the folks who enter data into them…so I’m not so sure I buy their argument. Similarly, I read that Rix themselves “distanced” themselves from the garage, saying that they hadn’t contacted the garage since 2007…yet they still carry the Rix branding. Perhaps, there’s something odd going on?

A colleague suggested that a list of the garages that are profiteering is maintained, such that we can boycott them after the strike action. Sounds like a good plan. I suppose it would be possible to add some to the comments of this post…

The Courier carries the full story over here.

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This isn’t just any gin & tonic and glass of red wine…

Here at the Hotel Pas bon marché we like to think of our guests as king. However, that rules out the fairer sex, so we really like to think of guests as royalty. Of course, most of us associate royalty with wealth, exorbitance, and so on and so forth. You get what you pay for, royalty know this almost as well as Michael Jackson does when he is looking to purchase a new vase.

So that’s why, here at the Hotel Pas bon marché, we have to afford our customers the luxuries that they expect from a £200 per night mid-week stay in our fine establishment. We don’t skimp, we don’t save and we pass our costs along the line, all the way to the final arbiter in the equation: the customer. If they end up paying through the nose for our services, who cares? They’re royalty and they can afford it, right? Well, that sounds fine and dandy, however we’re a business, so of course we skimp and save. But we still pass our costs on to our loyal guests.

That’s why we like to charge £20.78 for a gin & tonic and a glass of red wine. Royalty pay that kind of price. And in that price, you’ll find our service charge of £2.03 added automatically for your convenience. I mean, you wouldn’t want to have to go through the process of working out the tip we required: our service is such that it deserves a sizable tip. Of course, the service charge is optional, but we’re not going to tell you that up front because that might mean less money passes from you to us, and that’s the name of the game: we want your money.

But this isn’t just any old gin, we don’t appreciate references to current prime ministers and nor do the real royals when they find themselves in need of a place to rest their weary heads after a hard day watching or playing polo. No sir, royalty needs to remember the Empire: we serve only the finest Bombay Sapphire Gin.

Our red wine isn’t any old red wine and it’s not from M&S either. We choose to serve the smoothest Côtes du Rhône in 250ml glasses. At least that’s what we on print the receipt you receive as a souvenir of your stay with us. Who knows if we are serving cheap table wine or the fine vintage that you believe you’re sipping? Let’s face it, we’re in the money making market, so we’ll probably have sourced the cheapest Côtes du Rhône that we can find. It’s psychological, probably.

We do all this with a smile. We take your money, your £10 note, we go to our point of sale and return with the receipt, politely tell you “this is not a £100 note sir, it’s a £10 note, your drinks cost £20.78”. We’ve done this many times, we know the reaction we’re going to get, we know you’re a comedian; even Scottish comedians are amongst our most humorous guests. We should start a comedy club; it could a money spinner. But we’re not into spinning money, we’re interested in taking money from our guests, so that’s why we can get away with charging what amounts to £10 per drink. Every round is a winner, our bar manager loves it. Ka-ching squared.

It’s humour all the way, because we know from experience that you were simply winding us up when you gave us a £10 and expected change. You’re royalty after all, you’re loaded – it’s our job to exploit that fact and make you part with your cash because you yourself, you don’t care. It’s only money, you have plenty of it, you must do, you’re staying in our establishment and we charge £200 per night mid-week.

Craig stayed at a major hotel in Jermyn Street. It was nice. He’s not royalty, but was surprised about many aspects of the service. Breakfast was a fine motion of dining excellence: cooked fresh, the presentation was impeccable and tidy. The plate was heated to a decent temperature to ensure that the waitress burnt her fingers and the bacon was kept hot for as long as possible.

However the dirty napkin let the Executive Chef’s branded service down somewhat. The warmed bread that was offered as toast was not becoming. I’m sure the Executive Chef would cringe had he seen the serving mechanism for the butter and Flora – they were supplied in delightful little white tubs, carefully shaped with a fine lining of foil on top: these are little containers that are so popular outside of royal circles. Those containers aren’t the finest bone china, no, they’re made of plastic. And let’s not get started about the ironing board in the room – the one that would not stay up. With no hand-pumps in the bar, this hotel will not make it into any CAMRA guides.

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A runway, a rucksack, heightened security, just one idiot?

My trip to London on Wednesday and Thursday was meant to be simple and run-of-the-mill. I had even planned to meet up with @irascian and @olivers thanks to the power of Twitter. Indeed I did meet up with Ian and Oliver, however my meeting with Oliver was rudely cut short because some clown, idiot, tube decided that his rucksack had to be deposited at the end of one of Heathrow’s two runways. He managed to carefully place this rucksack within the airport grounds during a state of BAA’s heightened security.

Whatever his intentions, he managed to force the cancellation of a lot of domestic flights. I’m not hugely interested in the international flights that were cancelled – I was on a domestic to Edinburgh. It didn’t take me long to realise that the end-game for me involved staying over in London for another night. I re-arranged my flight to depart the next morning at 0755 – resigning myself to the fact that I had to find accommodation (huge thanks to @zimakki and his other half for that).

However what really infuriated me about this incident was that I was no longer able to record a short video teaser with @olivers for DDD Ireland. Yes, it was great catching up with Oliver for a beer, however we were unable to grab some recording time to make a 5 minute teaser video. It will happen, I hope to pop down to Oliver’s place of residence, taking my Sony HDD camcorder such that I can record his teaser video!

BAA, please pass your compensation requests on – make this idiot pay for it. Give him a job in your customer service department. But don’t pay him; make him take the worst customers, the ones that shouted at British Airways who bore the brunt of the cancellation woes. Make him deal with those folks, he’ll soon realise the power of democracy and the state of our nation. It wasn’t British Airway’s fault, yet still a handful of customers “kicked off” at their customer service team. Wrong on so many levels – the minute you annoy a customer service representative, you’re lost. Resign yourself to the fact that “shit happens”. You’re staying in London for another night or you’re getting a 8-10 hour coach ride home to Edinburgh. Live with it.

However, whilst he might have been an idiot, we have to consider the fact that overall airport security was stated as being “heightened”. Whatever that means… It surely means that muppets like this can’t just traverse the perimeter fence, saunter up to the end of the runway and then drop his rucksack. Surely not. Heightened security. You gotta be kiddin’ me?

He might be an idiot, a muppet or whatever. But please, surely airport perimeter security are sailing in the same boat? They must be feeling a bit red-faced right now.

This incident saw one of the runways closed for a while. It might have been useful to have that third runway that everybody’s ranting about…but that’s another blog post and should be considered rhetoric.

The icing on the cake: I returned to Edinburgh on the 0755 flight some 14 hours after my first flight was cancelled. Imagine my surprise when I found out that my baggage had been left behind at Heathrow…It turns out that flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Heathrow had baggage issues – the queue at British Airway’s baggage services was very long indeed. Out of the hours from Thursday 1700 to Friday 1100, I must have spent 4 of them standing in queues. But anyway, baggage is being located and couriered to me in due course.

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