Reflections on nine years as a church treasurer

And so, having been (joint) treasurer at St Columba’s since a few weeks after graduating in the summer of 2009, I’m finally stepping down at the end of the year.

Why?

Fair question. Having a time-consuming and technical role is the perfect go-to excuse to avoid doing anything else for the church, and I had polished up the IT involved to significantly cut the hours required.

Did things get better in nine years?

CAF Bank’s online banking web interface sure didn’t, but at least (contrary to what some people still think) it is possible to have a system where two people authorize all outgoing payments.

We already had a pleasing number of people donating by monthly standing order when I took over, but these days there are only two (soon to be one) people left who regularly send in cheques.

Suppliers, visiting preachers and hirers have all got much more adept at receiving and sending payments electronically. I haven’t actually gone through with my threat to destroy all our cheque books, but the number written each year has finally dropped to match the number of fingers on less than one hand.

We do still have one supplier who accepts BACS payments but “doesn’t have online banking” so continues to send us reminders by post to pay their invoices – until the end of the month when it becomes apparent that we have.

Cash in the plate on Sunday has dwindled in proportion to the rise of standing orders, but still adds up to a fair bit.

The level of paperwork required every 24 months to prove we’re not international money launderers continues to be a pain in the posterior for an organisation staffed by part time volunteers.

Charities need to shut up and take our money

One continued irritation is transferring the results of our “special collections”. The idea is simple – six times a year, we have a retiring collection for a worthy cause. We pick two charities who do work locally in Oxford, two UK-wide and two international. We claim all the Gift Aid we can on the money, and then send the balance to the charity in question. This is usually very tedious as charities large and small often don’t publish details for donations to be made via bank transfer. More often than not they do have a means to donate by card, so I can do that and claim the amount back personally – but this is messy as they insist on using details harvested this way to send you postal begging letters for years afterwards (MS Society, I’m looking at you). A particular favourite was Citizens Advice Oxford (earlier this year) who we ended up blindly posting a cheque to as they have no details on their website about how to donate.

Will I miss it?

Sort of, but I’m busy enough these days that having the hours of my life back will be very, very nice indeed. And nine years is long enough that one is in danger of becoming a single point of failure.

Cycle gear

In the past, I never owned a bike or any of the associated kit long enough for it to wear out or for something better to come on the market – my bikes always used to get stolen when I lived in central Oxford (and skimped on locking them up properly).

However, the world has moved on, and so have I – and given that I commute between 2,000 and 3,000 miles a year (!) on my trusty steed, I’ve been making some improvements with winter closing in…

Lights

I’ve had a fairly nice set of CatEye lights since I got the bike in 2012. They take six AA batteries between them (four front and two back), and the speed with which they chew through them was starting to annoy me. Inevitably, they run out half way through my eight mile cycle home in the dark. I carry a full set of spares, and they’re all rechargable, but finding somewhere safe to stop and swap can be tricky and the cold weather really seems to affect how long they can hold a charge. Getting four batteries the right way up while wearing gloves, in the dark, is also not fun.

So I bought myself some new ones which charge over USB. I stuck with CatEye in the hope that they would fit on the existing brackets (they do!) and so far I’m impressed. This front light seems to punch out at least as good a cone of light on full power as its predecessor, despite being a third of the volume and half the weight. And I can charge it from the USB power brick I have in the shed, as well as from my computer at work. It also has a nice push button system for on/off which is not susceptible to the accidental activation of the sliding switch on the old one.

Best of all, it has a low battery warning light, but still manages to run at full brightness until the battery is completely exhausted.

Still waiting for delivery of the new back light from an Amazon seller in China…

Camera

My previous cycle camera gave up the ghost, and I went halves with a friend on a two-for-one offer on new ones from Chilli Technology. They took quite a while to ship, but the result is what I was hoping for: a slight evolution on the original, with weak spots like the on/off button fixed, swappable batteries and charging over micro USB.

Pannier

My pannier has never been the same since I put it through the washing machine after some food leaked inside it. Unfortunately the back plate ended up deforming into the shape of the edge of the washing machine drum, and so the pannier has been curved for about six years now. I replaced it with the nearest thing still made by the same manufacturer, which should do the job. One of the tricks I’ve (eventually) worked out is that if one cycles four days out of five and drives on the other one, then it makes sense to transport clean shirts and towels in by car on the fifth day to minimise the weight cycled with.

DBPower battery booster

Car battery booster, a red box

DBPower car battery booster

I’m very impressed with this thing. It was recommended to me by a colleague, I found a nearly-new one on Ebay and it’s been under my passenger seat for six months. This morning, my car battery (less than a year old!) was mysteriously too flat to start it, but the booster had it going within a minute and spared us a really annoying Sunday morning delay which would have disrupted ten people. Really simple to use, and it has USB for charging phones too. That said, it did drop 60 percentage points of power after starting my Golf GTi, so I wouldn’t over-use it for other purposes.

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.