Thursday, 18 August 2011

The legend of the Haribo tree

I recently celebrated my 32nd birthday, and I had to write a short post to preserve my finest gift for posterity. I had a number of lovely gifts, but for sheer ingenuity and creativity, this was the clear winner.

I arrived at Joe and Clare's last Sunday to find a large Amazon box stood up, with the flaps loosely sellotaped and a card hinting cryptically at "enjoying their creation". When I opened the box, I couldn't believe my eyes:

Mother-flippin' Haribo tree.

Yes, a Haribo tree. And a massive one at that. Only in my wildest dreams had I imagined that Haribo could in fact be grown and cultivated rather than purchased, but here in front of me was gelatinous proof.

Haribo tree in situ.

I'd never encountered anything like it, but there do seem to be some commercial offerings although they look pretty weedy in comparison with the craft foam ball, wood, No More Nails, cocktail sticks (x1000) and soil construction of my wondrous tree.

Once we started "pruning" the tree we discovered that the Haribo was so tightly packed onto the tree that some Haribo fossils had been formed. Generations of future confectionary archaeologists will surely marvel over Haribus Cola Bottlus:

Rare fossilised cola bottle.

I might go as far as suggesting it's one of the best gifts I've ever been given. Mostly because it's given me a new interest in gardening; unfortunately though, none of the "cuttings" I've planted at home are showing any signs of life.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

iMovie 11 fails to export Quicktime with error ~2125 on Lion

I recently tried exporting 2:49 hours of HDV footage to a 1080p Quicktime using iMovie 11 on my brand new Mac mini. The initial estimation of duration was 13 hours, which rose to 21 hours and then 24 hours.

This morning I discovered that the export had failed with a rather cryptic error code of ~2125. While I was on the phone to AppleCare (summary based on my first ever call: don't bother) I noticed that I only had 5gb of disk space free. Before I started exporting I had around 120gb free.

What I discovered is that iMovie uses a temporary file, and in the case of a ~2125 error this temporary file is not removed. After much searching, I tracked my file to the following location: ~/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems/

Here's the culprit:
-rw-r--r-- 1 timdp staff 112589413689 11 Aug 01:33 ICMMultiPassStorage-526-bfffde94-1

Taking up 113gb (22.6% stats fans) of my drive. Not cool.

Here's my remedy:
Press CMD + Space
Type Terminal, press return
In Terminal, type cd ~/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems/
Type ls -l, to see if you have a large file
Type rm , so in my case rm ICMMultiPassStorage-526-bfffde94-1
Close Terminal

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Olympics update

Just a quick post to provide an update on the results of my Olympic ballot entry. You probably sensed in my previous post that entering the Olympic ballot has been a rollercoaster of emotions, and that trend has continued. First, there was the delay to the start of taking payment, then the painful wait until payment was taken, and then further disappointment/elation depending on how much (if any) money disappeared from your account.

On the 31 of May, we were debited for £216 (£210 tickets, £6 postage). This equates to 7.63% of the possible total value that we applied for. In the face of lots of friends getting nothing, I should have been grateful, but initially I was pretty unimpressed as I'd psyched myself up for taking a two week holiday and going to loads of events.

May threatened for a little while to sit down and write a program to work out all possible combinations of tickets that could add up to £210, but in the end she settled down and quietly did it by hand. She sat quietly at the table processing and analysing, emitting the occasional "oooh" or "ahhh!" with each revelation. By the time she'd finished, she'd generated the 86 possible combinations and looked very pleased with herself.

Her findings have shown the following:
  • We have either three (67% likely) or four (33%) pairs of tickets.
  • We definitely don't have tickets to: opening ceremony, men's basketball final or men's synchronised 10m diving final.
Yesterday we took a look at the post-ballot availability list to see if any of the events we've applied for were under-subscribed (with the assumption being if they haven't sold out, we should definitely have a ticket). Unfortunately, all of the events we applied for are sold out, so no further narrowing is possible.

Below is a table showing the probability of each event based on the 86 combinations of possible tickets:

The most interesting part for me is the grouping of events all at 6.98%, as these include: men's 100m final, men's team pursuit final, men's 5000m final and the women's floor exercise final. When combined, there's a 34.9% chance that we have one event from that group, which means we might have something truly amazing. The Olympic emotions rollercoaster is atop a peak again, and will hopefully thunder euphorically to the end of the ride once our final confirmation email arrives.

Only 5 more days to wait until we know for sure.

Monday, 16 May 2011

How I got O2 The Works broadband free for a year

Two things happened recently: fibre optic broadband (40mbps) became available in Winchester and we came to the end of our 12 month contract with BT for line rental. I looked into BT's Infinity fibre service, but at £18 a month + £10 BT line rental (and it has to be BT line rental) and combined with an 18 month contract, I've decided to wait.

Given that the European Commission has said that BT have to provide the same access for third-parties to their fibre network as they currently do for their copper network, I'm crossing my fingers that within 18 months providers other than BT will be offering fibre. Whether or not 18 months will be enough time for contract terms/prices to become more attractive? I'm not sure, particularly given that BT are being allowed to retain price control.

With that decision taken, I thought I'd have a go at lowering my monthly cost for line rental and broadband. MoneySavingExpert recommend Primus Telecom, but it I'm honest, their 90s website put me right off. Then I remembered that O2 do fixed line rental now, and my experience of their broadband has been positive enough for me to trust them with the line rental.

I phoned up and explained to the advisor that I'd like to add their basic home phone (line rental only) service for £7.50 a month and also asked if I could renew my broadband at the same time (we were 11 months in). I also told her that I had a loyalty discount on the broadband, and that my ideal case was to renew the broadband whilst retaining the discount and also add the line rental. At this point she popped me on hold as she needed to consult retentions to find out how to handle the loyalty discount.

When she came back, she said that if I was prepared to sign up for 12 months of line rental at £7.50 a month, she could give me 12 months of broadband free of charge. I really wasn't expecting this and after a a quick pinch make sure I wasn't dreaming, I agreed. The agent said she'd need to transfer me through to retentions to sort out the broadband first and then she would call be back to finalise the line rental. When I got through to retentions, they explained that I could indeed have 12 months of broadband for free, but that as they no longer offer the same terms as I was on, I'd have to change my package. She went on to tell me that she'd move me onto their highest package "The Works" (netting me a static IP), that my bill will say -£21 a month and that she'd post out a new wireless N router to me immediately.

With that call finished, I waited for the call back from the first agent, which duly arrived and I went through all the contractual terms and acceptance. Once that was completed and the verbal ink was dry, I mentioned to the agent how much better this call had gone than I was expecting. She told me that she didn't even know 12 months free broadband was possible and that I was now paying less than her staff rate for my service!

The switch-over of the line from BT to O2 happened today and I have to say it was seamless, I didn't even notice any downtime. We've had some intermittent issues when there has been heavy rain, but after a visit from the OpenReach engineer who discovered a fault and switched us onto the spare core between our house and the cabinet, it's been rock solid and in fact our speed has increased with a current sync or 9629kbps down and 1265kbps up. Not bad for a total cost of £7.50 a month.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Olympic lottery

The London Olympics 2012 ticket ballot closed last week and I wanted to write up my approach to and experience of the ballot so far.

When it was announced that the Olympics were coming to London, I was surprised by how excited I felt. After a little thought, I decided that my approach would be to treat the Olympics as my two week holiday for 2012, and that I would spend the same amount on tickets as I would on a holiday abroad. May didn't agree with my thinking to start with, but I gradually won her over and we came up with a mutually agreeable budget.

In our typical style, we massively over-planned and spent a good few hours going through the timetable and devising a spreadsheet. Given the baffling approach of having a single ballot for all tickets and the varied pricing structure, we ended up taking a long time to finalise our choices. By the time we were ready, it was about 10:30pm on the final day of ticket application, so we got caught up in TicketMaster's web site capacity FAIL. To be honest, if I'd known it was TicketMaster providing the infrastructure, I'd have been incented to get my application in early; for the last few big events I've booked, their web site has always run out of capacity.

I saw this screen a lot.

The website was broken for about an hour and a half, and at the depths of my despair I even consulted the website's help function:

My question was "Sorry we cannot process your request. WTF? Give me some tickets.

Eventually though, we were able to get our choices in before the deadline. Below you can find the full list of what we've applied for.

I'm secretly hoping we get most of it, as although it will be expensive I think it's going to be an excellent experience. Fingers crossed (and bank account loaded!).

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Taipei diary

We had an excellent week in Taipei so I wanted to write a little bit about our experience. Taipei is the furthest east I've traveled, beating my previous best of Sri Lanka by a good distance. It's also a really long way away; with our routing via Singapore meaning that we flew 8762 miles each way. We stayed in an apartment which was very centrally located and directly outside exit 1 of the Zhongxiao Dunhua Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station. We arrived in the evening and arranged a transfer via the apartment rental company. This worked very well as we'd been travelling for 21 hours and I don't think I could have coped with sorting out either public transport or a taxi.

We were met at the apartment and shown around; it was small but well apointed with 2 beds, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen, a washing machine/tumble dryer, aircon and free wifi. Jack came to meet us at the apartment when he finished work and then took us out for a walk to get our bearings and for dinner at Kitchen Pucci, where Lisa came to join us. It had good dumplings, but terrifying tea bags:

Teabag terror.

The next morning I nipped out for an early run and we then walked to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and then onto Taipei 101 via smith&hsu, an truly excellent tea house. Taipei 101 was the worlds tallest skyscraper until it was diminished by one in Dubai last year, although they still claim the fastest elevator in the world (Wikipedia suggests this may be a lie, but it's pretty freaking quick either way). It was pretty overcast on the day we ascended, so the 360 degree view wasn't quite as amazing as it could have been, but it was still excellent. My personal highlight was checking out the 660 tonne tuned mass damper (affectionately known as damper baby) that occupies the centre of the 88th-92nd floor and can move by 1.5 meters in the event of an earthquake or typhoon. We ate at Momoya in the Taipei 101 basement food court before catching the MRT over the Chiang Kia-shek Memorial Hall just in time to catch the 5pm flag ceremony. After a bit of a rest, we ate at Sweet Dynasty just over the road from the apartment.

On Saturday we took the train from Taipei main station to Ruifang, and then rode the Pingxi line up to Jingtong for a walk around and a browse of the market stalls. It was wet and grey so we skipped some of the stops and missed out the walk to the waterfall, but it was good fun none the less. In the evening we ate at Din Tai Fung and then had a few drinks at On Tap and played Jenga. By Sunday, the rain had intensified so we hid out in the Taipei Fine Art museum, taking in the Monet Garden exhibition and grabbing some lunch in the basement cafe. May and I went for a stroll around Ximending before we all met up at MOT Kitchen to celebrate Judith's birthday. I took a detour on the way back to the apartment and had an excellent if somewhat painful foot massage.

The rain had cleared on Monday so we visited Longshan temple and the botanic gardens before catching the MRT up to Beitou to visit the public thermal baths (80p entry!). The baths were lo-fi, but delicious with temperatures ranging from 39 - 45° C. In the evening we visited Shilin night market with Jack and ate street food whilst browsing the stalls. Best discovery was a deep fried egg/pancake combination brushed with soy sauce and the best market items were the Engrish t-shirts.

Tuesday had the best predicted weather, so we seized our chance to go and do some hiking. We headed north to the Yangmingshan national park and hiked up Mount Qixing. It was a beautiful hike through forests and then as we climbed higher through arrow bamboo. At the peak we saw an old guy doing tai-chi and shouting at at the world from the four corners. We descended to Saioyoukeng and checked out the thermal area with it's fumaroles and boiling pools and after a bit of a "have we missed the shuttle bus? why is that stray dog following us?" panic, caught the (terrifyingly driven) shuttle bus back to the park entrance.

We checked out of the apartment on Wednesday and moved to the Taipei Park Hotel for one night. After checking in, we went for a run around Daan park before having a guilty western lunch from Starbucks/Subway. In the evening, we raced up Elephant Mountain with Jack to take in the view of Taipei 101. We made it just in time for sunset, but I learned that my carbon-fibre travel tripod isn't really sturdy enough to reliably hold my 450D + 24-105L for long exposures. Thank Jeebus for the Ixus. After dinner at NY Bagels, May and Jack went to meet Judith at her hotel and I headed out to do some night photography. When my camera battery died I went over to Judith's hotel too for a quick beer and a nose around her palatial room.

We flew out to Bangkok on Thursday 31st, but not before we'd taken Wenshu line to Taipei Zoo Station and ridden the Maokong Gondola cable car up to Maokong station for a walk around the hillside and lunch at a tea house.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

It's a long way to Taipei

We've made it to Taipei! We're here visiting May's brother Jack and his girlfriend Lisa who are here teaching English as a foreign language at the Hess schools.

We had planned to visit Taipei for 6 nights, then Japan for 10 before returning home via Singapore for 3 nights to visit May's friend Jenny, her husband Raj and their new baby in Singapore. Due to the recent earthquake, we've canceled the Japan leg of the trip entirely and spent a stressful two weeks replanning a way to fill our spare 10 days. We finally settled on Thailand and will be spending 3 nights at the Conrad in Bangkok before flying to Koh Samui to the Bo Phut Resort & Spa for 6 days of relaxation.

We flew Heathrow to Taipei via Singapore (5 hour layover) on Singapore Airlines. I've just started to find flying novel again since switching jobs and putting an end to my business travel, so a ride on an A380 was pretty cool. After some deft online checking in, we ended up in the economy section of the upper deck, with us in a pair of seats and May's mum Judith across the aisle.

The A380 was impressively massive and the Singapore Airlines fit out delivers a very impressive economy flight. The seat pitch is long, meaning plenty of legroom and the cabin feels spacious rather than packed. Whoever designed this plane actually thought through the details of passenger comfort, and as we all know it's the little things that make the biggest difference. Examples are a screen that pivots out enough that even a lanky body like me can see it when the person in front is fully reclined and extendible foot rests. In flight entertainment is also excellent with over 14o films on demand, plus TV shows (around 6 consecutive episodes of each) and lots of music. Further, there's a USB socket to you can connect up your own equipment to either charge or view media on screen. The service is also excellent, very attentive with plenty of snacks and drinks - you can even ask for a Singapore Sling and get free playing cards. You even get real cutlery. In short, flying economy with Singapore is like flying premium economy with everyone else; would use again with preference.

The only flies in our delicious Singapore Air ointment were called Bob and Vanessa. They were sat in the seats in front of us, and in meeting they each found a kindred spirit, much to their delight and our chagrin. At the first drinks service, Vanessa ordered a beer and Bob a red wine, and from here on in, things went downhill. As each drink was finished, the call light went on and another was ordered. Initially May and I chuckled at their poor quality flirting and chucklesome cheap chat ("can't wait to have a ciggie", "let's write a thank you note to the hostess" etc), but as all the lights were switched off for our simulated night and their volume continually increased the novelty quickly wore off.

It was all a bit too much for Judith, who had a quiet word with the staff who then spoke to the delightful pair. Much hilarity ensued along with a lengthy discussion led by Vanessa who wanted to "find our who grassed me up" she'd "rather have been told to my face, rather than snitched on". With the noise continuing, Judith sensibly asked to be moved downstairs.

After tolerating 8 hours of non-stop drinking and high volume, I felt I had to intervene when Vanessa had turned her headphones up to maximum volume and started singing along with D.I.S.C.O. by Ottowan and gyrating her rotund frame in her seat in what I assume was her approximation of dancing.

"Would you mind turning your headphones down and not singing please? I'd like to get some sleep" I said, adding "I heard you say earlier you'd rather be told to your face rather than complained about". The music was turned down, and the singing stopped (for a bit), but rather than peace and quiet, there was a continual discussion about keeping the noise down and a lot of sssshhhhing. The only time we had any respite was after breakfast when the pair fell asleep, including Bob doing bizarre musical snoring. I guess the limit when flying is nine and a half hours of solid drinking and then breakfast will definitely send you to sleep.

I think the situation was poorly handled by Singapore Air as despite the obvious intoxication of the pair, they kept on serving them drinks. We assumed that there would be a limit, but the staff were overly polite and failed to take appropriate action, resulting in a detrimental effect for the surrounding passengers. Although getting no sleep was a pain, I consoled myself with two facts: 1) I'm neither Bob or Vanessa. 2) I bet they had stinking hangovers that even their much awaited ciggie wouldn't abate.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Nike+ Coach Walk to Run training plan, my experience

When I suffered some back pain last summer I was forced to take a break from running. Once the pain had subsided, I tried to resume running with two 20 minute sessions a week, but found that I just experienced further back stiffness and pain. This was a real knock to my confidence and I was wondering whether or not I'd ever be able to get back in to running.

When I described my frustrations to my masseuse (who is a triathlon and Ironman competitor), she suggested that I try a walk-to-run plan. These plans are designed for people who are new to running, but the gentle and gradual increase also makes them suitable for recovering from an injury. After trialling walk/run intervals on my own for a week or two and regaining some confidence, I decided to start following a formal training plan. After some searching, I settled on the Nike+ Coach walk to run training plan and equipped myself with the Nike+ GPS app for my iPhone.

Based on my successful trial runs, I decided to join the plan in week 4. It took me a little while to work out how to achieve this, but all you need to do is work backwards and then set a date in the past as your starting date. Unfortunately, Nike haven't integrated their Coach plans with the Nike+ GPS app so you have to check manually each day what you're supposed to be running. To help me keep track, I decided to print out the full schedule to use as a reference, but discovered some serious errors in it, which thankfully Nike quickly corrected.

As I started to track my progress, I soon noticed that I was running much further than Nike's recommended distances. I reported this to Nike and they recommended that I shouldn't worry too much about the distance I was covering, but just stick to the advised times. I'm a little disappointed that the Nike+ Coach plans aren't personalised at all; it wouldn't be hard to ask users to input their distance covered for walking/running for a set period. In fact, if Coach was integrated with Nike+ GPS, plans could adapt to their users automatically.

I found that the issue with the recommended distances was compounded by the lack of guidance Nike provide on how to run. At 6'4" and with my stride length, if I tried to stick to their distances I'd be moving so slowly that I'd be using unnatural biomechanics. Given that this is a beginners' plan, and that the most common beginner mistake is to run too fast, I'm quite surprised that Nike aren't sharing their expertise. An article introducing perceived effort or another strategy for controlling pace would not go amiss.

To demonstrate just how far off Nike's guidance I was, here are some graphs:

I ended up running 75% more miles than advised!

Although there's been some niggles along the way, I've really enjoyed the Nike+ Coach walk to run plan. It has built up both my confidence and fitness and I've always felt safe following the plan. It also helped me to achieve my goal of returning to parkrun (free, weekly timed 5k) which I did at Basingstoke on Christmas day:

I do have some gripes with the Nike+ GPS application however. For one, you can only track running with it, which seems a bit strange. I have also experienced my workouts being randomly paused, and given that the Coach plan requires you to do intervals regularly, the lack of an interval training feature is a real pain. The easiest way I found of easing this pain is to change the "Voice Feedback, At a Set Time) option in the Nike+ GPS settings to 1 min.

The voice announcements are irritatingly frequent when you're trying to do two sets of walk four minutes and then run six, but I found it preferable to the alternative of running while holding and looking at my iPhone. That said, part of the walk to run plan in week 9 is doing 20 sets of walk 30 seconds, run 1 minute 30 - for this I did have to run holding my phone and I felt my training for those sessions was cumbersome and less accurate.

I ran yesterday using RunKeeper Pro (free until the end of January 2011) and I must say that its ability to deal with different sports and intervals place it well ahead of Nike+ GPS. Also, the quality of data available on the web seems better with RunKeeper too, check out this comparison:


RunKeeper Pro

Interestingly, before I took those screenshots I was going to write that RunKeeper has more data, but in actual fact they're closer than I thought. I think this speaks volumes about the presentation of the data, although Nike seem to be aiming for a simple/consumable interface, at this moment in time RunKeeper are delivering more successfully.

I particularly like the way RunKeeper records your splits and you can even edit the recorded GPS points manually if you're so inclined. That said, the interface in Nike+ GPS and the screen lock feature is really nice, plus although they're a little corny I like the encouragements you're given at the end of each run and the messages from Paula Radcliffe and Lance Armstrong when you set a new PB.

To summarise, the Nike+ Coach walk to run plan is a very good way to either start running or get back into shape following an injury. Thank you Nike for getting me back into running and helping me achieve my goals. You can improve though, given you are sports experts, some of what's you provide is a little perfunctory. Your forums are good and responsive, but under-staffed (hi Clover!) and the lack of "how to run"/"how to warm up/cool down"/"how to stretch" information as part of the plans is surprising.

The lack of an intervals feature in the Nike+ GPS app is a serious defecit and if you could deliver a tight integration between the Coach plans and the Nike+ GPS app so that you could simply start the app and it would tell you what to run (plus a button to skip a day!) and personalise the plan based on how fast each user walks/runs that would be truly amazing.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Running Spotify on an O2 Joggler

Back in April I picked up an O2 Joggler on the cheap and after quite a bit of mucking about I'm now running Ubuntu netbook edition on it and using it to feed Spotify into my main amp and speakers. I have tried a few different solutions along the way so I wanted to write this post to summarise what I've found to work best.

You will need:
  • an O2 Joggler
  • a Spotify Premium subscription
  • a USB key (min 4gb)
When considering which USB key to use, it's worth investing in one that has a high transfer rate. I started out with a freebie key and the performance wasn't great. After some reading around I settled on an 8Gb SanDisk Cruzer Extreme which was €18 from eBay. It's a bit of a beast and sticks out quite a bit, but it gives a reasonably zippy performance.

I've also tried a both Spotify under Wine and the Spotify for Linux preview and both Stephen Ford and Jools Willis' Ubuntu images for the Joggler. Spotify for Linux runs significantly better on the Joggler than when under Wine (hence the requirement for a Premium account) and Spotify for Linux behaves much better on Jools Willis' image which is Ubuntu 10.10 based, as opposed to the Stephen Ford 9.10 image which gave me issues with both installation and then playback. The 10.10 images also has a screen calibration utility built in and a much nicer on-screen keyboard.

First, download Jools Willis' Joggler Ubuntu image from (I have v1.3). Next unpack the image onto your USB key (Unix users will find instructions on the download page, Windows users should use Win32DiskImager).

Once the image is written, switch your Joggler off and insert the USB key. When you switch the Joggler on, it will automatically boot from the USB key. This process will not make any changes to your Joggler's firmware - if you want to return to the supplied operating system simply switch off, remove the USB key and switch back on.

Once the Joggler has booted up, you should be able to connect it to your network using the onscreen keyboard. Here are the two icons you need:

Once on the network, you should open a terminal window (Applications -> Accessories -> Terminal) and use the on-screen keyboard to type sudo apt-get install openssh-server. When that has completed, you can find out what IP address your Joggler is using by typing ifconfig. Here's a screenshot of mine:
Once you know the IP address, you can connect remotely to the Joggler using SSH (Windows users, get Putty), this is really helpful as it means you can use a real keyboard rather than the on-screen one, which while very functional can be a little slow.

After you've connected using SSH (username & password: joggler) you can go ahead and install Spotify for Linux by typing the following (or cut & pasting, if you're using Putty you can right-click to paste):
sudo su
echo "deb stable non-free" >> /etc/apt/sources.list
apt-get update
apt-get install spotify-client-qt spotify-client-gnome-support
apt-get install vino

As well as installing Spotify, the above will also install Vino which allows you to VNC to your Joggler so that you can control it with a keyboard and mouse. To enable VNC, click System -> Preferences -> Remote Desktop:

The most useful thing about being able to VNC to your Joggler is that the maximizing the Spotify for Linux window is really hard with the touch screen, so being able to use a mouse makes all the difference.

I was going to write and complain that the drawback of the Jools Willis image is that it uses btrfs and as such cannot be resized from it's 4gb size. However, I've just checked and version 1.3.1 is now available which comes in both a btrfs and ext4 flavour. I would recommend the ext4 version.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A note on complaining,

I've recently resolved a little issue that I had with NatWest bank, so I thought I'd tell you about it. Before I get started, this is more a post about the art of complaining and how much I love to complain than about NatWest being terrible. Mistakes happen, so this is more about how to deal with them than anything else.

Back in February, May and I were in the final stages of purchasing our first house and I needed to withdraw money from my ISAs to pay the deposit and legal fees. After popping into branch, I learned that I could only
make withdrawals from my online e-ISA free of charge into a NatWest branch-based account. As I don't bank with NatWest, the only other account I held was an online e-Savings account. Unfortunately this wasn't suitable to withdraw the money into.

Finding the situation incredulous, I had a good few phone calls, web chats and some more branch visits to try and get clued up. Alas, everyone I spoke to gave me a different story about what was and wasn't possible. I was left with the impression that branch and online at Natwest are totally separate entities and that neither understand the other.

I decided to go with the suggestion from in branch and pay £23 to make a CHAPs transfer from my e-ISA to an external account. Having to pay to get access to my own money was pretty annoying, but given the situation I signed the paperwork and went on my way. The next morning, I got a phone call to tell me that CHAPs from an e-ISA to an external account was totally impossible (contrary to the previous days solid assurances), but that if I gave my verbal approval, they would fast-track me a branch-based account into which they could withdraw the e-ISA and then perform the CHAPs to my external account. I agreed and first thing the next day I checked my online statement to check everything had gone correctly.

At first glance, everything looked fine, but when I looked closer I noticed that the newly created savings account had £X (where X is many thousands of pounds) in it, and that my e-ISA had been debited £2X. That's right, the did what they told me was impossible and did the CHAPs direct from my e-ISA and ALSO transferred the amount out of my e-ISA into the new (and totally unnecessary) branch-based First Reserve account.

Brilliant work NatWest, I've been sheltering that money from tax in an ISA for nine years and you just withdrew £X for no reason and essentially without my permission. Understandably, I was pretty annoyed to discover this and headed down to the branch to get things sorted, reclaim my CHAPs fee (CHAPs is guaranteed within 24 hours, they didn't deliver) and open a formal complaint.

Below is my correspondence with NatWest:

"Dear [redacted],

Thank you for you letter dated 1st March 2010, your reference 12687022. I am still dissatisfied with NatWest as you have merely repaired the damage you caused, rather than offering any form of compensation for my wasted time and anguish.

As I explained to your staff, the withdrawal from my ISA was to complete my first house purchase. As I'm sure you appreciate, buying your first property is a very significant and stressful time, and to be let down by NatWest at such a critical moment is simply unacceptable. You made getting at my money quickly impossible, and everyone I dealt with (branch staff, numerous phone agents, web chat) provided a different answer about what was/wasn't possible given my combination of accounts. You seemed unable to understand your own products and I was the one left inconvenienced and unnecessarily stressed by your internal deficiencies. I got the impression from this experience that there is a gulf between your on-line and branch operations and in comparison with other retail banks I've dealt with, NatWest feels about 10 years behind what's current in terms of both on-line presence and customer service.

Although you have made good the £X you transferred out of my ISA account without authorisation and refunded my CHAPs payment fee (you were unable to comply with your own contract of same day transfer), I regard this as the bare minimum of your duty to me. I suggest £200 as an adequate amount of compensation commensurate with my time and anguish associated with this regrettable event. If you are unable to offer suitable compensation I shall proceed as advised by your complaints process by first contacting the Customer Relations Manager and then the Financial Ombudsman. I look forward to your prompt response.

Kind Regards

Tim Poultney"

"To: Customer Relations

Dear Sir/Madam,

I write to you in accordance with the Natwest customer complaints procedure. Enclosed you will find a copy of my letter to [redacted] at your White City branch and also her response. For completeness, I have included a prior letter from , which I received shortly after the incident I am complaining about.

Please can you read both my letter to and their response dated 19th May. In my letter, I summarise my complaint and then request financial compensation from you in respect of time wasted and anguish suffered as a result of your banks incompetence. I am sure you place a high value on your customers happiness and satisfaction with you, and also on your reputation, so I anticipate a positive response from you. I'm not sure how I can be any clearer about what I expect from you than I was in my letter to dated 10th May; the response asking me to provide "the copy of your bills" suggest to me that they either didn't read my letter, didn't comprehend it, or lack sufficient power to act upon it.

To that end, can you respond to me directly and resolve this issue. In addition, can you share with me what steps you will be taking to ensure this type of situation does not happen again. If I am not satisfied with your response, I shall continue to follow your complaints process and will contact the Financial Ombudsman. I anticipate your prompt response.

Kind Regards,

Tim Poultney"

So eventually they refunded the £23 and provided £200 for my inconvenience after three letters.

Summary: Complaining is good. Despite the eventual outcome, I won't be banking with NatWest again. All my accounts there are now closed.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone

tWe've just completed a 3 night stay at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. The inn was built in 1903 by the Northern Pacific Railroad company to the design of 29 year-old architect Robert Reamer. It's a beautiful building and is the first example of, and blueprint for the National Park Service Rustic architectural style, otherwise known as Parkitechture. Robert Reamers rather inspired vision was that the building should seem to have sprung up from the ground, as if it had grown rather than been built. You can see this below in the use of lodge pole pine for the entirety of the lobby.

(Thanks to Kev for the loan of his 10-20mm for the above shot)

We stayed in the "new" west wing, added by Reamer in 1927 in room 4058 and a definite highlight of our stay was taking the hotel tour. The tour runs daily at 09:30 and 11:00 and we were guided by the excellent Mary. Mary was filled with fascinating facts and anecdotes, but the one which struck me the most was hearing about the hotel in Winter.

The hotel opens in early May (weather permitting) and closes in mid-October. When the hotel closes, all the soft furnishing are placed into storage, all the doors are locked and the windows are boarded. The electricity is switched off and the entire hotel sits out the winter cold and empty.

Yellowstone is full of seasonal staff from all over the place (I wish I'd done a season somewhere 10 years ago, you can apply for Yellowstone here) and although the Old Faithful Inn is closed throughout winter, the adjacent (and recent, completed in 1999) Old Faithful Snow Lodge is open through the winter and staffed by a hardcore breed of seasonal worker. I say hardcore because the weather is freezing, there's no TV and limited internet and travel is by either skis, snowmobile or snowcoach.

As Mary tells it, this year the Snow Lodge staff were given a special treat; the front door to the frozen Old Faithful Inn was unlocked for one night, and just enough electricity was turned on to power a projector. No heating or lighting was turned on and staff were instructed to turn up just before midnight, wearing all their clothes and bedding. With all the furniture in storage they sat on the floor to watch their cinematic treat.

What did their employer choose to show them as they sat freezing, in a cold, dark and deserted remote hotel? Have you twigged it yet? Of course they got to watch The Shining. Amazing scenes.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

American pay phones are rubbish

America is awesome, right? If you want to keep believing that I suggest you never use a pay phone here, and particularly not one operated by Qwest. From my previous post, you'll know that I'm in Yellowstone National Park. There is no connectivity here – no mobile reception (well, there is if you're American, but O2 have no roaming), and no wi-fi. Whilst I highly approve of keeping things this way and leaving the parks as a retreat, I wasn't expecting quite such a kerfuffle from trying to phone home.

Armed with $6 of quarters, we approached the payphone and followed the printed advice: “For an international call, dial 0 for the operator”. Alas, there was no operator, just a machine requesting an area code and number. FAIL #1. Next I tried the standard international dialling pattern in the US of 011-, this took ages to connect and eventually just said “error 16”. FAIL#2. Next, I tried calling the Qwest number on the phone and got through to Danny who said he'd be happy to connect my call for me. I gave Danny my credit card details and everything was going well until he asked for my zip code. “Is this an international card?” asked Danny quizzically, “Oh, I'm sorry we only accept US cards sir”. Way to go Qwest, make it impossible to accept card payments for the calls which will make you the most money. FAIL #4.

I was reaching boiling point by now, so we went back to the hotel and sought some advice. “Get a calling card” was the tip, so we headed over to the store and exchanged our quarters for a said item, which was pleasingly Yellowstone branded. This went a little smoother, although on the first call I made, the recipient could hear me, but I couldn't hear a thing; and of course I got charged for it. FAIL #5. Finally I was able to successfully make the call, but man did it take a lot longer and involve way more complexity than I was expecting. Lesson learned, America is the land of the brave, and the home of the free, unless of course you want to dial internationally from a pay phone.

Friday, 21 May 2010


I'm in Yellowstone, the first National Park ever created in the United States. It's a big place, comprising 2.2 million acres and although it's highly accessible to visitors it's still a wilderness, with only 370 miles of road and less than 1% of the park developed for tourism. Further contributing to the wildness is the abundance of wildlife including: bears (black and 'griz'), bison, moose, elk, deer, mountain lions, wolves, bald eagles and more. As if that wasn't enough, Yellowstone is a geological marvel – it sits atop a huge volcano and contains over 50% of the world's geysers, plus hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

The main tourist experience consists of driving around a figure eight of roads established in 1905 by the US Army Engineers Corps. There's plenty of goodness to be had by planning out an itinerary of hikes and sights, but I've found that the most rewarding experiences so far are the unplanned, unexpected and impromptu. I'm still feeling humbled today from our stroke of luck whilst driving back to the hotel last night. As we drove back towards Mammoth from the Lamar Valley (a.k.a. the American Serengeti), we spotted a long line of tail lights and a large number of vehicles parked at the side of the road at the Blacktail Ponds turnout. As we approached the turnout, I could see flashes of movement from the field below and the tripods and cameras lined up on the road side. You quickly learn that in the park, collections of cars parked off road means animals and from the number parked here it was clear that something special was happening.

After parking safely (always pull completely off the road, y'all) and walking back we discovered that the focus of all the attention was a pair of grizzly bears protecting a bison carcass from a pack of wolves. Wolves are endangered in North America and were controversially reintroduced to Yellowstone back in 1995, so just seeing a wild wolf is rare enough, but to see the interaction between a pack and a pair of grizzlies I think we were incredibly lucky. Over the next hour as the sun set and the light faded we watched on entranced as the wolves circled the bears and then darted in, only to fall back as the bears charged and swiped at them. After a while, all but the alpha wolf retreated away up the hill and we assumed that the show was drawing to a close. However, the alpha wolf continued to stalk and harass the bears. Suddenly the wolves began to howl; a solitary voice was quickly joined by others as the hillside lit up with this eerie and haunting song.

Information was being passed from person to person, most of it originating from the park rangers so we came to learn that the bears were a mother and three-year-old cub, and that a total of nine wolves were out on the hillside. We also learned that until very recently the bison carcass had been frozen into the lake, but since being exposed by the thaw the bears had been dragging it out of the water and guarding it from all comers. The wolves must have been attracted by the carcass (May has been enjoying the way uncommon words have crept into conversation – I've never heard or uttered the word carcass as much as in this week) as the rangers didn't know of a local pack or den.

Just as we were preparing to leave, someone beside us proffered her binoculars and said “Have you seen the third grizzly coming down the hill?”. Sure enough, a larger and much darker bear was charging down the hillside, scattering the wolves as he made a beeline for the carcass. We learned from the ranger that this was a male bear, and when he approached the carcass the female bears backed right off. In the twilight we watched the male bear settle down on the carcass, as the females looked on and the alpha wolf continued to circle. The whole experience felt like watching a segment from Planet Earth unfold right in front of us and was totally captivating – I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of that wolf howl as it echoed up the hillside. People we've bumped into since have confirmed how lucky we were to see this as even regular visitors have rarely seen a wolf, let alone a whole pack harassing grizzly bears.

As if to reinforce my feeling that the park is best experienced serendipitously, my efforts to catch a repeat performance this morning by getting up before dawn drew a blank. I arrived by 05:45 and found both the turnout and the roadside full of cars. I joined the line-up of tripods and my only reward was a single coyote. I think I'll stop trying and trust the rest of the holiday to luck.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Devising a new household budget

We've finally bought a house so the finances are under scrutiny. I've been analysing the joint account transactions from the last year with a view to generating a new budget plan for this year and have discovered the following:
  • ~43% of our spending goes on food (food + eating out + veg box)
  • We spend more on TV licence than broadband (I know which I get better value from)
  • Our veg box costs more than our water rates
The categorisation was only done roughly so I'm sure the "Food" category contains plenty which isn't but it was easiest to just mark all Sainos and M&S spending as food.

We're also switching the joint account from Cahoot (who don't do faster payments, still!) to A&L so this data was all extracted from Cahoot. Alas they have no nice export tools, so this is all derived from a lot of cut & pasting and Google Spreadsheets.

(click for big)

Friday, 8 January 2010

Depressing realities of modern Britain

You've seen it on the news I'm sure, a marginalised, extremist group is planning to march through a Wiltshire town in protest over innocent Afghans killed in the war. This has, as no doubt was intended, caused a public outcry and a good old media frenzy. I personally don't see what all the fuss is about, sure I find the group in question abhorrent, but we are lucky enough to live in a democracy where we have the right to freedom of speech. If any individual or group goes beyond the limitations on freedom of speech, that quite rightly becomes a legal matter.

As we saw with Nick Griffin on Question Time, providing freedom of speech allows individuals and groups to represent themselves and show their true colours; it also allows the public to draw their own conclusions. People, as they say, can be their own worst enemies. The best course of action would be to ignore the group in question, show the classic British stiff upper lip, strength of character and resolve. By reacting and providing media coverage, we make the group seem more influential and powerful than they really are; this is typically the goal of such an action.

I hadn't really given this much thought until I spotted a few of my connections on Facebook (I will not use the term friends in this instance, and may have to review the policy) had joined various Facebook groups organised to protest against the proposed march. I also got pinged a link by Morcs which started me reading the content of some of these groups. I can only say that what I found was deeply depressing and saddening; the majority of comments are racist and xenophobic. They also feature a startlingly poor standard of literacy and there is a worrying amount of claimed support for the BNP and EDL.

To save your eyes, I'll summarise the common themes. For your sanity I've corrected the spelling and grammar rather than quote verbatim:
"I'm not racist but "
"The BNP aren't racist, they just tell it like it is"
"If they want to march, they can go and march in
"If you don't like it, go back home" (What? To London/Bristol/Winchester/?)
"I'm pure white British and proud" (Umm... 18,000 years ago your genetics started out in Western Asia, or more recently you could be Roman, or Norse?)
"They should all be rounded up all be rounded up an "
"If they don't like our laws they can stop taking all our benefits and jobs and go back where they came from"
"I'm not racist, my friend is Muslim/Pakistani/etc, but "
I don't think I have the heart for further summary, if you can bear it you can read for yourself here, or specific examples here and here (don't say I didn't warn you).

The overriding message seems to be that the majority of responders on these groups (the largest has over 600k members) think that if you're not white, you're not British and that if you're not British you should be shipped out of the country. Is this really what the majority of modern Brits think? And people complain that we no longer have any national pride, I for one can't see much to be proud of right now.