Thursday, 26 June 2008

A Lesson In Customer Service

The DVLA (government department that issues driving licenses) is, according to their website and letterheads, an organisation that wins awards for 'Customer Service Excellence'. They don't let you forget it, either, until you're actually dealing with them, and then you begin to wonder why.

Last week I sent my first driving license application off. It's something I should have done when I was 17 and you didn't have to pay through the nose for it, but I was pseudo-pragmatic back then and rationalised not doing it because I wouldn't be able to afford to run and insure a car (£3000 a year insurance for young, inexperienced drivers) for a while. Now that I've finished uni, it's about time I started catching up on that front, so I got a license application form, filled it in and sent it off.

First off, filling in the form. You need to prove your identity, naturally, for which I sent off a birth certificate and my National Insurance card, as the birth certificate is not single-document proof of identity because anyone can get anyone's birth certificate. Of course, that means that an opportunist who finds someone's National Insurance card need only request their birth certificate et voila - instant identity theft. You also need to include a passport-size photo of yourself for them to use for the application. This photo needs to be signed on the back by someone, and that person then needs to fill in a section of the form attesting to the fact that they've known for at least two years, and that the photo is an accurate likeness of yourself. This person needs to be someone of reliable character, which you're not allowed to judge for yourself, so it gives you a list of people who are of reliable character: a local business person or shopkeeper, a librarian, a professionally qualified person (e.g. a lawyer, teacher, or engineer), a police officer, a bank or building society officer, a civil servant, a minister of religion, a magistrate, a local councillor (or Member of Parliament, Assembly Member, Member of the Scottish Parliament, or Member of the European Parliament). Of the people in that list, only one would I trust not to lie for the sake of it: the magistrate.

After filling in the form, you have to write a cheque or postal order for the correct fee. To find this fee, you look down the list of application types and find yours. First provisional license application: £45. Expensive, but what can I do? I write the cheque, put it all in the envelope and post it.

Today I got a letter back from them. Apparently, I did not enclose the correct fee. The correct fee is £50. They returned my application form, cheque, and identity documents, and told me to return the application form with correct payment. They didn't bother to tell me whether or not I need to send my National Insurance card back with the application, so now I've got to wait 'til they back to me via e-mail.

My main beef is that they didn't exactly do me a service by returning the whole damn thing for me to resubmit. I was £5 short, and it was clearly because I was given a form that had out of date fee information on it. The form was obtained in February, so obviously the fee had changed between then and now. They hardly chose the most efficient, customer-friendly method of dealing with this. They could have gone ahead and processed the damn application, took the £45, and upon sending me my provisional driving licence and identity details back, included a letter that explained that the fee submitted was £5 less than the current fee, a URL to the fees information online, and instructions about how to get the remaining £5 to them. It's hardly rocket science, but these money-grubbing public departments simply can't see past the next penny, so they would probably wax idiotic about having to chase up lost fivers.

I still owe UPS £8 in 'brokerage' for paying the import duty on an item that I had shipped into the U.K. earlier this year. They don't chase the small figures, though, so I've never had to pay up. It's just not worth their time. So the DVLA wouldn't even have to chase the lost £5 amounts. Most people, when told to pay up, will do so, and the vast majority of people will not find themselves using out of date application forms anyway. Of course, the DVLA shouldn't just accept all inadequate payments and just bill the applicant for the remaining payment. Only in cases where the fee submitted was clearly due to using an out of date application form should this apply, as that's the only time when an inadequate fee is excusable.

Of course, the smartest people don't work in the public sector; the money is in the private sector, and the smartest people don't need the job security inherent in the public sector. The price we pay is incompetence.


Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Cat Piss

Going on two months since I last blogged, which is a crime really. It's not like I haven't had shit to blog about. One of the ways I kept up with my blogging was always having my Blogger Dashboard open in one of my myriad active Firefox tabs, but at some point I must have lost a Firefox session (TabMixPlus's crash recovery is woeful; it always restores me to a point about a week before) and that sent time skewing off. What I need to do is figure out what happened here, at the X, that caused time to skew off into this alternate reality where Obama is the Democratic nominee for the presidential race, England aren't in EURO 2008, and for some reason Doc Brown lives in my basement.

Before that, here's what's been happening back on Planet Dru.

Exams are over! Woo-hoo, what say what-what? My last one was Data Integration and Analysis, on June 2nd, and I have to say that I've never been shitting myself so much before an exam, and come out of it so relieved. Shiiiiiit that exam was easy. It was the usual 'here are five questions, pick three and answer them' malarkey that we get on exams. Question 5 was an absolute gift. It was about 'clustering': the practice of grouping points of data, which have been numerical value and plotted in a potentially many-dimensional space (but usually just the two or three dimenstions). It involves calculating distances between data point using either Euclidean (as-the-crow-flies), Manhattan (as-the-cab-driver-drives), or maximum (useless) methods, and then grouping points into the specified number of clusters. It can be a very tedious and repetitive task, depending on the data points, number of clusters required, and the starting points for said clusters. This question, however, was entirely two-dimensional, required no recalculation after the first clusters had been computed, and was doable in fifteen minutes flat. I sealed my paper, handed it in, grinned for a couple of minutes, and left.

The 4th saw a mate have his last exam, so we all went for a Chinese buffet and then off to a couple of pubs. We sat in the beer garden drinking beer and having our victory dances (see: Independence Day) as the Fat Lady had most definitely sung.

The exam board meets on the 20th June to finalise marks, and then it's just a matter of what class of degree I end up with and then off to graduation on the 17th July. Got my gown ordered already so it's all about the waiting.

I got a bit of a surprise the day after our wee celebration, though. Got a phone from my mate Kev who said "guess what happened on my way home yesterday?" Shit, I thought, he's only gone and got mugged or something. Turns out he'd actually sustained a bad injury while running to get to the shop before it closed. He went arse over tit, cut his head, and broke his left arm. The hospital couldn't put a cast on it as he's broken the bone about an inch below the shoulder ball. They gave him a funny sling that he has to take of and try to move his arm once a day. I don't about you, but I don't care if it's a doctor or Janet Street Porter who's giving that instruction; I'm not taking the damn sling off and I certainly wouldn't be trying to move the fucking arm. Hopefully they'll be able to operate on it soon enough and stick some pins in it.

EVE-Online next. I'm CEO of my corp now. This might actually be the first time I've mentioned the game, in fact. At any rate, I've been with my corp, Aristotle Enterprises, since a month after I started playing the game, in the Summer of 2006. By Christmas 2006 I was Combat Director, and as of a month or so ago I've taken over as CEO of the corp. It wasn't a forceful take-over, by any means. Our former CEO, Michus Danether, stood down, having been inactive for a while and content to let the Triforce of Directors, composed of me as Triforce of Power, Carbis as Triforce of Courage, and our elder Arria Periclee as Triforce of Wisdom, run the corp in his stead. In the end he decided it wasn't fair of him to cling on to the top seat. He'll be sorely missed and I hope he returns to the game sooner rather than later.

EVE has been tumultuous, as always. The battle of lofty goals vs. our members being routinely busy with work and schooling is an age-old battle of epic proportions. We declared war on a corp last week (Morning Star Operations) and have been running skirmishes with them. So far we've killed one Griffin frigate, and two Onyx heavy interdictors (both on the same day, both flown by their CEO). We've got further plans for this war. Hopefully we can eek out sufficient remunerations (read: bribery/tribute/etc) from our victims that we can move on to hitting someone else or taking part in Faction Warfare, the patch for which is currently being deployed to Tranquility server.

Now what has all this got to do with Cat Piss? Nothing. I just started rambling before I got to talking about what the fuck just went down in my house. I've been sleeping off-cycle lately, going to bed at about 4am and waking up between 1pm and 3pm. So I decided to all-nighter tonight and correct my sleep cycle. So at about 4am, this almight ruckus erupts on the landing in my house. Cats fighting. I have one cat, a tabby female called Maggie (as in Maggie the Moggie... you can tell I didn't name her as she isn't called Leia or Pink Ranger or whatever) and she's always getting attacked by cats around here. She puts up a good fight, as she's shown me on occasion by scratching the fuck out of my hands and arms when I play-fight with her, so these fights with other cats usually end in a stand-off and the other cat retreating.

Recently, a new cat has shown up. We call it the Mirror Maggie, as it just looks like an older, wiser, possibly male version of Maggie, without the luminous collar and bell. This cat is a bastard. It's tough, immune to fire and frost, and rolls natural 20s at an astounding rate. It's getting bolder and bolder, so I figure it must have been this cat that was so far inside my house fighting with Maggie.

So this fight erupts, waking up my dad and my younger sister, and we go downstairs to find this mischievous cat. On walking downstairs I notice the bannister is wet on the top, like there's been a leak. It didn't smell like anything so I concluded it was water from a splashed drink. We couldn't find any hostile cats downstairs, but there was a small poo there. That's right, a poo. My sister disposed of it swifly (fortunately it was very solid) and we found the Bastard Cat outside on the wall.

An hour or so later I go downstairs to get a drink and there's a definite musty smell about. Fuck. That bastard cat pissed in the house. It fucking pissed in my house. Marking its territory I presume. Fuck that shit. The next time I see that cat I'm gonna mark my territory all over its backside, either with a boot or with several two-gramme, six millimetre, 320 feet-per-second plastic ball bullets. Nigga better learn not to come inside this house again or it's gonna get a good seeing too. Cracker-ass cracker.

Cats are awesome, but this cat must have the spirit of a dog inside it. Or possibly Stinkmeaner. Yeah, probably Stinkmeaner.

Peace out my niggas.


Friday, 18 April 2008

>.< Cafe Nero Toilet Paper Dispenser

So this afternoon, before I got the bus home from Picadilly Gardens, I needed to go and use the toilet. Number one, since you ask. Usually I go into the Manchester Arndale Centre and walk through it to the toilets at the other side, but I didn't want to miss my bus and I needed to go to the toilet, so I ducked into Café Nero on Market Street (next to Primark and [I think] the Abbey National) and checked to see if they had a toilet. They did, though it was a one-toilet-one-sink affair, so I did my business and left.

After washing my hands, I realised the hand-dryer wasn't working, so I went to get some toilet paper to dry my hands. As I was obtaining the paper, I noticed this:

On the right-hand side of the dispenser were two Chinese characters drawn in the same pen, but I'm not sure what relevance they had to the face, unless they meant 'constipated man' >.<


Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Oh My God, They Killed BassHunter!

You bastards!

For those who didn't pick up the welcome pack when joining the Interwebs, Basshunter is a Swedish Eurodance DJ named Jonas Erik Altberg. He is famous round these parts for two songs more than any: Boten Anna and DotA...

Boten Anna


The first is about an IRC bot that monitors a channel he frequents, and the second is about the Warcraft 3 USM game Defence of the Ancients. He is, for all that matters, one of us - a gamer and a geek - and the presence of geek culture in his music promised to be a great thing for helping bring geekdom to the masses. Basshunter making it big meant that every time he answers the questions "What is Boten Anna about?" or "What is DotA about?", he would be giving geekdom prime time coverage.

Apparently, the world isn't ready yet.

Today I was channel flipping while doing some uni assignment work when I happened across TMF. A familiar sound came forth... holy shit, Boten Anna. I was half right. It was Basshunter, but it was a corrupted, dumbed-down for the club-going 'is this skirt short enough' tarts, version:

Now You're Gone

Was it too much that the original contained geek-culture references? Was it that the lyrics weren't English? Did that confuse the club-goers? Did the lack of references to a broken heart made the song devoid of club-worthiness? This typifies why I stopped going to clubs - a room full of empty people dancing to empty music.

Fuck this noise.


Sunday, 23 March 2008

Twitter - Creating Care Where There Was None

I've heard the name 'Twitter' banded around in discussions about Web 2.0, people listing the social networking sites they use, and so forth, but I had no idea what it was. So, after hearing Kevin Rose mention it on a recent DiggNation, I decided to go and see exactly what the deal was.

I had three questions going in...
  • What function does it have?
  • What can it do that I will find useful?
  • Why was it made?
Having used it for a day, I think I have the answer to the first two, and half an answer to the last question.

Twitter's function is to provide a means for you to care about the minutiae of all your friends, co-workers, and family members' day, and for them to care about the minutiae of your day. Eating soup? Put "eating soup" on your Twitter. Watching Lost? Going for a walk? Going out on the rob? Climbing a mountain? Get that shit on your Twitter. Apparently, this is among the most exciting things on the Interwebs.

Twitter's use for me looks like it will be unifold: something to do in the ten minute break in the middle of a two-hour lecture. Today, I applied the statuses in the picture to the left. They included me eating an easter egg, me working, and comments. I'm not entirely sure on what gain there is from this service. It's interesting, sure, but not nearly as interesting as the fact that people actually use this site - that it's actually popular.

So, why was Twitter created? I couldn't get a direct answer to that question that wasn't distinctly uninformative, but, from my impression, it seems that Twitter was created because, in the dawning ages of Web2.0, we needed a tech demonstration. Twitter seems to be that tech demonstration, so I can't help but feel that, while this is nice and all, it would be much more useful if it was extended into a application that isn't just a 21st Century means of saying "look what I'm doing, and care about it".

I'm not sure if I'll be keeping this Twitter thing up. I have it wired into my GoogleTalk on my PC, and a widget for updating it on my Mac, so I certainly have the opportunity to keep updating it. I'm just not sure I'll remember. To start thinking about one's daily activities as worthy of what is essentially a one-line blog is an odd paradigm to attempt to step into. Blogging about thoughts, findings, and general shit is good. Blogging about the fact that you're watching Lost... I can't see that retaining my interest.


Friday, 21 March 2008

The Continuing Employment of Mr M. Fenix

Steam popped up today to inform me about the Unreal Tournament pack they're offering. While looking at this, and clicking various links, I ended up on the Unreal Tournament website, where I noticed a remarkably familiar face. Some illustration (click for full-size):

At some point, Epic probably decided that Marcus 'Gravel Voice' Fenix is the manliest man dude fella they ever thought up, and thus decided that he would make an appearance in all their future games. After all, games are great for modular programming... why make new characters when you've got all the models from the ones you already made?


Wednesday, 19 March 2008

They Don't Make Films Like This Anymore

The other night, Demolition Man was showing on ITV. A mate and I were watching the film and discussing it over MSN, and we came to an agreement: they just don't make films like this anymore. The recent Hollywood trend of resurrecting every successful franchise since sliced bread has blurred the line, but given the difference in body counts between John Rambo and the first Rambo film, and the sucky high-life aspect of Rocky Balboa, contrasted against the underdog aspect of the original, show that this new formula misses the mark by a long way.

I'm not sure what it is about Demolition Man, and similar old-school movies, that is too brilliant to make it into the attributes of modern movies. I don't think it's mere nostalgia, as that is usually shattered immediately upon revisiting the bygone remnant. Those of us who have dug out the NES or Spectrum et al to play the games of our childhood will attest to this - we swiftly realise that the game we loved were only good for their time, with a few exceptions. The exceptions tend to stand the test of time anyway, and we look at Zelda and Mario for examples of these. They provide us with modern variants, and do a great job of it, so we don't need to dig out the NES to play Super Mario Bros. - it's all still going.

So, is there a modern variant of Demolition Man? Has it simply evolved into newer films? Is Will Smith the new Sly Stallone? Is "*sneeze*, oh I'm sorry, I'm allergic to bullshit" the new "Hasta la vista, Baby"? Surely not. There's a gulf of semantics and context to these moments that could be better be described in an essay, and by someone who knows what they're talking about, but the macho, CGI-less action-movie has been supplanted by a set of plastic modular disaster movies and the foresight to retain international merchandising rights.

One question remains. What movies make up the subset of cinematic history that is the "they don't make films like this anymore" list? So far, we've got two:
  • Demolition Man;
  • Lethal Weapon.
Tonight the Rock was on the Beeb, and we discussed briefly whether or not it belongs on the list, but I asserted that it does not. I'll reserve that for a place on the "remember when Nicholas Cage was in good movies" list.


Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Starcraft II, WoW Addicts, and Deadly Torches

Starcraft II, First Look at the Zerg

The original Starcraft was perhaps one of the most influential RTS of all time. I'm not a huge RTS fan, but Starcraft had my attention for hours comparable to Civilization, Championship Manager, and CounterStrike. If my Interwebs are truthful, South Korea still has gamer television channels showing Starcraft matches. Either Koreans are nuts or Starcraft really was a bloody good game, and considering the following it still has outside of the land of chien cuisine, I'm going to go with the latter. To this day, the phrase "Just curious, why am I so good?" sees regular use in my HashMap of victory lines.

So, with that in mind, you can imagine the tempest of joy that exuded from gamers all over the world when news of Starcraft: Ghost started to circulate. We waited a long time for that game, only to hear the project got canned a few years back. No matter, said Blizzard, 'cause we're working on Starcraft II. Starcraft motherfucking II.

Shit yes, the cries came forth, this is going to be epic. Well, here's a first-look at the game:

The Zerg look awesome. I was always a Terran man myself, for the Seige Tanks, Ghosts, and Wraiths, but I'm looking forward at slamming the glorious-looking Zerg good and proper when this game hits the shelves. Fuck yo' rush, nyuggah!

WoW Addiction: How a desperate father fought demons

Massively Multiplayer Online Games get a lot of good press. More than any other game, since they tend not to draw the ire of the shit-eating body of pure hate that is anti-gaming evangelist, lawyer-wannabe Jack Thompson. One MMO that does receive negative press every now and then is World of Warcraft, because, in the wrong hands, it can destroy lives. I should clarify that by saying that it isn't WoW that destroys these lives, it's all good MMOs, and by "good" MMOs I mean those that can keep you coming back for more. Warcraft gets the bulk of the heat because it has, by far and away, the most subscribers: ten million people play the game.

I play EVE-Online, which I consider to be the best MMO out there at the moment, by virtue of the fact that it is a challenge. For the benefit of WoW-players, I have linked that word to the Wiktionary definition. I'll not go into the details of why I consider EVE to be a better MMO than WoW -- it's a blogpost in itself -- but it's essentially a question of risk vs. reward. I am addicted to EVE-Online not just because it's a great game, but because I have people who depend on me in the game, and projects and goals to achieve that can't be described in level numbers and static raid locations. For some people, however, level grind and static raiding is addictive to the point of tragedy.

The linked article does not focus on the morbid life-sucking aspects of games, and does a good job of contrasting the commonly-accepted image of online gamers with how it really is. Gamers don't spend all their life playing games without any social interaction. Some may not have any good friends outside of their online worlds, but it is hardly common enough to make it stereotypical. Myself, I feel you'd have to be a serious recluse, or someone affected by circumstance, to have your entire social network exist only within the realm of your online gaming, but friends online are not just relations of bits of bytes.

During the course of my time playing online games, I have met people who have become some of my closest friends outside of the game, despite being huge distances apart. These huge online games can function like background networking exercises. I'm not foolish enough to say that everyone who plays MMOs becomes brilliant social interactors - that's simply not the case - but the vast networks of contacts I've developed in EVE-Online help me to realise ways of maintaining these networks. These are real people, and they function in the same way.

So let this be a lesson to all those who believe that MMOs are always soul-destroying, life-sucking succubi. Try it sometime, you'll find it's simply another avenue of the same social suburb.

A Torch With Some Stopping Power

I saw this gadget earlier last week, and it made me smile. It's nothing but a concept unit, not intended for sale at all, but it's a neat idea even if no one's going to have a practical use for it besides covert robbery. It's a torch, that unfolds into a submachine-gun that uses a Glock upper receiver and takes Glock magazines. Very swish, very... excessive.

"Gits nasty? Git dahn'er biznis."

That's all for now.


Project Status and a Note on Idiocy

Ain't nothing like a good bit of problem solving.

The project is moving along, but I've got a lot to implement before I'll be happy with it, and I need to be happy with it in the next few days. Spend a good deal of time these last two nights bugfixing, implementing new features, and redistributing said features among my scheduled prototypes. Today I need to finish this major prototype and then three small incremental prototypes. It will still be a shadow of the application I had decided to build, but I gave myself a nondefinite feature set to implement specifically because I didn't want to give myself too much to do in what I knew would be a hectic year.

That's all on the project though.

Today I saw a rather disturbing article highlighting the true idiocy of religious nuttiness. Forty-eight people have lost their vision through what became blind faith. Having heard that an image of the Virgin Mary had appeared on the fucking sun, pilgrims descended on what has been christened 'Rosa Mystica Mountain' to stare right at the thing to try and catch a glimpse of the image. The result? Burned out retinas. There are a number of disturbing things about this...
  1. I don't care if the damn Blu-Ray encryption key is emblazoned upon the solar surface, you don't fucking sit there staring at that motherfucker.
  2. You can see the Sun from anywhere... why go to this specific place to stare like idiots at the Sun?
  3. It took health officials to confront the clergy before local churches would tell their congregations not to go and look at the Sun.
I don't know if it was a lack of general education, ridiculous faith in the Lord, or what, but let's hope people learn the valuable lesson here: if someone tells you to jump off a cliff because the Virgin Mary's at the bottom, think about the consequences before you take that leap of faith.


Monday, 10 March 2008

Procrastination is a Bitch

I created this blog a couple of nights ago when perusing widgets for my Dashboard. I think that was it. I ran into a Wordpress widget for updating a blog from the Dashboard, and thought, "I forgot about my last two blogs... third time lucky?" Wordpress didn't seem to be what I wanted, though, so I headed over to Blogger and whacked this blog up. Filling it with content has been something of an afterthought.

I'm a bit disappointed to see that Blogger hasn't updated the themes, or added any level of variability -- at least this seems to be the case at first glance -- though I do recall seeing something about being able to significantly modify the theme, so I'll have a go at that once the pressing workload of leaving everything to the last minute is lifted from my shoulder by either rousing success or disappointing failure.

And that's what this post is about. The dangers of procrastination. I'm a third-year Software Engineering student at Manchester University, these past two weeks have been devoted to demonstrating the fruits of our labours: working project applications. I'll not go into the details of my project, but suffice to say that I spent far too much time thinking about the project and not enough time actually doing it. So when T-minus-Two Weeks rolled around and the only coding I'd actually done was a prototype that didn't work, a bowel-shaking thought struck me: Shit, I'd better fucking do something.

See, failing these demonstrations means failing not just the year, but the degree. There's no do-over like in the first two years. Failure here costs three years of tuition fees, and puts you in a dire position: either quit and get a job and get those fees paid off, or start the degree again, more-than tripling the fees (in the U.K. we now have 'top-up' fees which means Universities charge ~£3k/year rather than the £1225/year I'm paying for my degree) to try and get into a very good position afterwards for paying those fees off.

It's difficult to complete a project you don't give a shit about. It's even harder when the guy they've assigned you as your supervisor doesn't give a shit about you. He moved my weekly appointment with him so he could see somebody else in that time, and then didn't show up for the rescheduled appointment. He told me he "doesn't do e-mail", and that his inbox is full of spam due to having the address for so long, only to then tell his other, more Computer Sciencey students that he got their e-mails and so on and so forth.

Manchester University is a mess, administratively and politically. I spent the first two years of my degree at the School of Informatics; a perfect school for my heavily human degree. Software Engineering is not about Computer Science. It's a brilliant hybrid of technological competence, business skills, and the ability to not just straddle the line between the two, but to make them work together. So when, last year, we found out that the administrators of the University had decided to sell the land the School of Informatics was on, and to move all those students over to the Business School and the School of Computer Science, I was appalled. Having a friend in the student representatives body, I asked him what was going on. "It's all a political mess", he told me.

See, Manchester University has been under new administration for a number of years. This administration has tasked itself with the lofty goal of being one of the top five universities in the world, and they want to achieve this by 2015. Selling off the old UMIST campus was, apparently, a good way to move forward in that direction. Moving hundreds of Software Engineering students to a school that had neither the capacity nor empathy to handle them was, apparently, a good way to move forward in that direction. And this is why we're having such trouble at the School of Computer Science. Computer Scientists don't give a shit about our degree. They consider it a soft degree, said with the same tone that a Briton of the 1940s might refer to the Germans. Maybe it's that most of my fellow Software Engineers don't know how to recompile a *nix kernel. Maybe it's that most of my fellow Software Engineers don't know where to start solving a complex differential equation. I don't know. All I know is, if there's a red-headed stepchild at Manchester University, the Software Engineers are that stepchild.

The good news is, it's not looking too bad for my project. I just need to make my project report hella-convincing. So remember, people, don't leave things 'til the last minute. That wall of text I just posted, while true, is me rationalising my position, when my position is mostly my fault for spending many months working on my own projects instead of the one that mattered. You can't always expect a do-over, so never take it as a given.

"I'm a programmer and it's okay, I work all night and I sleep all day."