User experience

So I bought a new microwave for the church kitchen last weekend, as you do. I’m still not sure whether the old one was indeed “broken” or just “too complicated for ordinary mortals to operate”, but if I can’t make the thing blast some food on full power, then it’s got to go.

This is the right way to do microwave controls, especially in a shared kitchen:

Two knobs are all you need

The wrong way is anything involving lots of buttons and confusing choices about what sort of food it is.

Crossrail

It didn’t come as much of a surprise to me that Crossrail will be late. And though I personally am annoyed that the day when I can jump directly from Paddington to nearly all the places I ever visit in London (most of them are in Docklands) has been pushed back, I do have one thing to say.

Spare a thought for the poor sod who had to ‘fess up to the fact that it was all going to be late. I’ve been there on software projects, and it’s not fun.

How hard can it be?

Sometimes, I wonder if it’s me getting old or large corporations failing to shut up and take my money. Or in this case, somebody else’s money.

Although this is my last year “doing the money” for St Columba’s, I’m still one of an elite handful of people who “work in IT” and thus do all the geeky stuff. And our new minister moving into the manse should have been a chance to enjoy spending the church’s money on a stack of equipment (laptop, mobile phone, etc.) and sorting out an internet connection.

Oh dear, sorting out an internet connection. Here we go again. The default option was Virgin Media: after all, we already have one site with them, so no need for a tedious credit check and a load of faff, just call their sales team (very efficient) and get given a date for a site survey. That gets done, though annoyingly the team they send takes about five minutes to say “we’ll need to run a duct, somebody else does that” and buzz off.

They then fail totally to turn up to do the digging, blame it on “our landlords” (a likely story since we own the house outright – though it’s possible some tedious neighbour complained to the management company about digging up a shared driveway). They claimed it could be sorted, I decided I wanted it fixed before I turned 40, and moved on.

OK then, let’s use the BT phone line already in place. Zen are a supplier I know and trust in situations like this (i.e.: not interested in switching every 18 months to get a good deal, just want good service at a reasonable and stable price). Unfortunately, entering the post code on their site results in a blank grey page. And their social media team seem completely incapable of getting that sorted.

Finally, third time lucky, IDNet got the business, and (aside from some questionable non-default setting choices on their router), seem to have done everything right. I was particularly pleased that their team e-mailed me after I put in an order based on postcode, saying “there’s a stopped line in the property – want us to re-start it?” and giving me the number to confirm using 17070. It’s been up and running for 24 hours so far, so let’s see how it goes…

Bytemark bought by iomart

And so, after sixteen years, Bytemark has been bought out. In common with rather a lot of other customers (if Twitter is anything to go by), I was a bit saddened to hear about this via The Register rather than an announcement. I don’t blame the owners in the slightest – they have every right to cash in on their hard work after sixteen years. And whilst the construction of their own data centre undoubtedly gave them a cost edge over the long term, it no doubt needed to be paid for first.

Unlike other customers, I’m not going to idealise the company’s previous state – my nine year happy relationship with them has been based on our dedicated server Just Working for the most part, and me never needing to contact support. On the rare occasions when I have, it’s been a mixed experience. Such as the time when my query about adding a .mx domain name to their DNS service got a keyword based response: “your MX records look OK to me”. Or even better, the occasion when they managed to e-mail me another customer’s control panel password by accident.

I won’t be making any sudden moves, and if the founders are to be believed, neither will Bytemark.

Third time lucky

So the debacle finally came to an end – on the third attempt (one full month after the original order), OnePlus managed to ship me a 5t which did not disappear into a black hole somewhere in DHL’s network.

Was it worth the wait? So far, I’d have to say yes. It’s a big step up from the OnePlus Two – I didn’t buy it for this, but it weighs less and doesn’t feel ridiculous in a top or trouser pocket. The battery life and dash charging are exactly what I wanted.

Meanwhile, Google Pay is useful, especially since it manages to give immediate full details of transactions like the Oxford busses which take a surprising number of days to actually charge the card. I was amused that my corporate credit card doesn’t support Google Pay, despite one of my personal cards, issued by the very same bank, working just fine.

Facial recognition to unlock the phone is a gimmick, but it’s a surprisingly useful and accurate one, and doesn’t seem fazed by the difference between me in glasses and me in contact lenses (and unlike Apple, OnePlus didn’t go overboard and drop the fingerprint reader). And to my inexpert gaze, everything happens as fast and smoothly as on an iPhone 10 which costs over twice as much.

Next time, though, it’ll be a brick and mortar shop purchase.

DHL and the disappearing smartphone

Apparently the top line is wrong

My OnePlus 2 has served me well, but the battery is starting to show its age, and it lacks certain features like Android Pay which I’d really like. So after a bit of reading around, I decided to show some brand loyalty and order their latest and greatest, the 5T.

There are some websites which offer it for a few tens of pounds cheaper than ordering direct from OnePlus, but a bit of digging into WHOIS revealed these to be run out of the Cayman Islands (despite a .co.uk suffix). So I decided not to touch those with a ten foot pole and stick to the “most official” source. Consequently, I wasn’t in the mood to spring a few pounds extra for expedited delivery – this not being one of those “I just broke my last phone” occasions, I reckoned I could wait a few days for my new toy. A few days, as it turned out, meant 30.

Day 0 – Sunday 18/3 – ordered from OnePlus, got all the confirmation e-mails, estimated dispatch on the 20th

Day 1 – Monday 19/3 – a text from DHL saying they’ll deliver on Thursday 22/3 (day 4) and giving me a tracking link.

Day 4 – Thursday 22/3 – DHL tracking claims the parcel arrived at their Oxford depot that morning. I’m at work (the delivery address) all day, and it doesn’t turn up. As late as 11pm, the tracking continues to estimate “by the end of the day”.

Day 5 – Friday 23/3 – Call from an 01235 number from someone claiming to work for DHL saying my shipment is “lost” and that this is being investigated.

Day 6 – Saturday 24/3 – raise a complaint with my credit card provider asking for a chargeback as I never got the goods. Told Mastercard requires you to wait 30 days. That doesn’t square with my reading of the relevant law, which talks about being able to do it sooner if a delivery date sooner than 30 days was agreed, but I didn’t push the point. I raised a complaint with OnePlus instead.

Day 8 – Monday 26/3 – my working day is interrupted several times by phone calls from DHL. Call #1 denies all knowledge of the Friday call and claims they only spotted a problem when OnePlus raised it with them. They promise to pass to another team. Call #2 is the other team telling me they’re on it. I sort of appreciate the personal touch, but reporting you have nothing to report might as well be done by text (like the original shipping notification).

Towards the end of this week, I get fed up of waiting and phone OnePlus (their UK customer support number is an Aldershot area code, but the people answering it sound distinctly American to me). I insist politely but firmly that their subcontractor’s mistake is not my problem, and it’s time for them to dispatch a replacement. The person on the phone forwards my request, narrowly avoiding me yelling at them for adding “…if possible” to the end of it.

Thankfully it seems they were about to reach that point without prompting – on day 11 (Thursday 29/3), DHL called to say the shipment was definitely lost, and OnePlus e-mailed asking for the address to dispatch the replacement to. I gave it to them, and they sent it priority. If I’d known they were going to do that, I would have given them my home address. As it was, I gave them work and consequently my new phone is (allegedly) sitting in the Oxford DHL depo, as it has been for the entire Easter holiday weekend.

I asked DHL how many parcels get “lost”. I was assured it’s “only about 1%”. I suppose I should have asked how many smartphone-sized parcels have something bad happen to them. The reason the tracking lies is that they use bar codes, and it would be too time-consuming to scan every parcel at each point in the journey. So they rely on scanning the pallet/container with lots of parcels at each point, and “arrived at Oxford” was based on that.

All in all, a bit of a mess. OnePlus handled it fairly well, DHL not so much. I’ll update tomorrow to confirm if the second one does actually reach me at work…

As for preventing this sort of thing, I’d gladly pay a few tens of pence more for delivery to fund the use of RFID tags for tracking, which could be checked individually at every point along the line (and presumably also be used to stop parcels “going missing” by walking out of a depot).

Update, day 16 (Tuesday 3/4) – no sign of the replacement at 17:56; a call to DHL confirms it never made it “out for delivery” and they’re opening an investigation. Really not amused now.

I hope USB-C catches on

A small connector for a lot of power and data

New laptop, new docking station. But not the proprietary plastic tray of olden times; we’ve been trying out these new Anker USB-C mini-docks at work. I’m really impressed by mine: one cable to plug in when I get to my desk, and I have power and networking, an external monitor and mouse, and an SD card reader. Oh, and a USB port left over which charges my phone even when the laptop isn’t on the dock.

It does get properly toasty when the full set of ports are in use, but that’s not entirely a surprise.

The other nice thing about these are that they can be used with recent Macbooks as well as PC laptops, and if the interface lasts, they’ll be re-usable for the next generation of laptops too rather than tied to one model.

Lenovo T470s

Do your keys glow in the dark? Mine do.

I’ve just been issued with one of these as my new work laptop. So far, I have to say I’m impressed – it solves the poor screen resolution of the X230 I had for many years before it, weighs impressively little, doesn’t get hot during light to medium use; generally works.

Its feet don’t grip the desk well enough – they seem to be felt rather than rubber – but I’m sure I can MacGyver my way round that…

More to follow on how I find using Windows as my primary OS for the first time in five years!

Saturday night car maintenance

Spot the difference

After my success last year with the side repeater, I was defeated by the door lock module (the garage I gave up and paid a large amount to told me I’d done everything right except buying a too-cheap replacement part which was a dud). However, I pulled back ahead to 2-1 against the car tonight with a swap of the third brake light. All ready to not be an advisory when it goes for MOT on Monday.

CrossCountry trains: a badly communicated shambles

So I’m catching the train south from Macclesfield to Oxford – something I’ve done plenty of times over the past eleven years. I don’t usually go for the last direct train of the day, but on this occasion, I did. 1949 out of Macclesfield, 2215 into Oxford. It’s direct, which is important when you’re lugging a large suitcase and some Christmas presents.

Things did not start well at Macclesfield, with the train arriving fully 45 minutes late and listed as going to Birmingham New Street. Unfortunately I have an 8AM Tesco delivery arriving at North HQ tomorrow, so giving up and trying again in the morning wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I dig into the National Rail app and discover I can still make it to Oxford by walking from Birmingham New Street to Moor Street, taking a local stopping train to Banbury, waiting for half an hour, and taking a local stopping train to Oxford – arriving at 0015. Properly tedious, but I do need to get home tonight, so I dig out a mince pie and prepare for the worst.

Sure enough, we get to Birmingham, the train terminates and they tell us all to get off. But on getting off, the signs on the platform make it look like the front half of our train is continuing to Reading (like it should have done all along). So I get on, sit in an empty first class carriage, and watch the signs on the platform switch from “expected now” to “delayed” and then the train moves off…

Panic. Am I about to end up in a depot somewhere in the Midlands, trapped on a train all night?

Moments later, the driver confirms we’re off to Reading as expected, and will make Oxford a mere 45 minutes behind schedule (time to re-arrange my taxi for the second time, sigh).

Why they couldn’t have communicated the train’s ultimate destination properly from the start, I have no idea. I was half minded to wait on the platform, in which case I could still be there, fuming that the train I wanted had gone without me because it wasn’t labelled properly.

Nought out of ten for communication, seven out of ten for still managing to get the train through the same night, and one compensation request coming up…

Update: I filed my compensation request from the train, using its own WiFi. Southern (who I bought the tickets via) do have a nice online process including uploading photos of the tickets, but why do I have to take any action? Given we have a national database of what trains were or were not on time, the statutory compensation ought to be refunded via the same means I bought the tickets through, automatically and without me having to do anything. I feel a letter to my MP coming on.