Monthly Archives: October 2010

Waste Collection or Hot Air

West Devon has introduced a new waste collection regime.

They started by leafleting us some time ago.  Fine.  The leaflet promised more information nearer the time, so I didn’t pay too much attention except to note the date: second half of October.  They also promised a recycling box and a food waste box.  The recycling box duly arrived, but no sign of the food waste one.

Last night I was due to take the rubbish out.  A fortnight’s worth: I don’t take it out every week.  Since I have no food waste box, it includes food waste.

I check the recycling box.  In it is a leaflet, longer than the original one.  But it’s illegible!  Or rather, it’s stuck together and won’t open: slicing it delicately with a swiss army knife shows traces of print on the corner of the inner pages, but it’s irretrievable.  But visible on the back page is a collection calendar, which shows there’s no general waste collection this week.  Damn!  We’ve always had weekly collections in the past.

OK, I can live with that.  Awkward when one is away on a Monday night and misses the opportunity for a fortnightly collection, but so be it.  Just so long as I know and can plan around it.  At least I can fill the recycling box this week!

So I went to the West Devon website, to check the full information, any further guidance on what goes in the recycling box, and those leaflets.  This is where it gets surreal: I found myself going round and round in circles on the site, but not finding any substantial information.  The first link claiming to be PDF turns out to be a page about PDF (and acrobat), and I curse my way through several more links to it before I find an actual PDF leaflet.  That then turns out to be a useless one-pager, not the ones I’m looking for.  Some annoying rummaging at home finds the old leaflet in its glossy printed form, but nothing I can reference without the hassle of paper.

Now truly p***ed off at this vacuous website, I try sending them a complaint:

Your leaflet on kerbside recycling and refuse collection describes an “outside food bin” and “kitchen caddy”, and implies we should be provided with them before the new service starts.  The new service has started, and none have been seen here.

OK, not a big deal: I can presumably contact you to ask for them.

However, having only a vague memory of the leaflet, I naturally came to your website to look for the information.  I was also looking for the leaflet that came in the big green boxes, but is illegible due to inadequate production quality.

WHY THE **** ARE THESE LEAFLETS NOT AVAILABLE ON YOUR WEBSITE?

Is this nothing but hot air?

Now it gets all the more surreal.  It refuses my submission, telling me something on the form is incomplete.  I go through the normal fields again looking for the little red star, iterate several times.  WTF???

Finally, a break and a cup of tea later, I find it.  The last entry in the form is a big textbox captioned:

If there is anything which makes it difficult to use our service, for example if English is not your first language or you have a disability, please use the space below to tell us how we could help you.*:

It’s refusing form submission because I’ve left that box empty.  This is vintage irony: their misguided attempts at accessibility have made the thing inaccessible!  I entered in that box:

How about enabling submission with this box blank?  For those of us who are sufficiently able-bodied and english-speaking to fill your form, but whose eyesight isn’t quite sharp enough to spot a tiny red star above this box?

(Pardon the grammar, but it was past 2 a.m. and I’d been struggling for far too long with it to care.  Not an excuse, but a plea for mitigation).

For any techie readers, this mess of a site proclaims WCAG AA accessibility, at which I can only shake the head.  A look at the source reveals heavy div-soup that is void of any HTML semantics.  An automated analysis reveals markup that is surprisingly close to AA conformance in box-ticking terms.  While not as bad as many 1997-style monstrosities, it shows all the hallmarks of following rules with no insight into their meaning.

I guess the whole website is a box-ticking exercise, just as waste collection is a box-filling one.  Maybe B for effort, C- for outcome.  I could forgive the missing receptacles and the web design if only they’d provided those simple leaflets!  Grrrr ….

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Marke’t Econom’y

Went into town today to buy some salad for lunch (already had bread, cheese, and soup in the kitchen).

Our local greengrocer looks different.  Bare, empty.  With a much-reduced range on display.  There are notices apologising for the reduced range, but explaining they’re in administration.  Oops!

Apparently if all goes smoothly they have a buyer lined up, and it’s another greengrocer, so the difference to consumers should be minimal.  It’s a foreign company – a wholesaler – taking over, but from only just across the border in Kernow.  Our Cornish neighbours grow some excellent fruit&veg, so here’s hoping for some good local supply lines, though perhaps not so much in the coming wintertime as in the season of plenty.

If all goes well, can we infer the market economy is coming back to life again locally?  The weak going out with minimal fuss, and giving way smoothly to the strong.  Our food shopping has seen some improvements recently with on the one hand the coming of Lidl as an alternative to the muzak-ridden supermarkets, and on the other hand the rise of great specialist shops!

All in it together? Not me!

Our beloved government tells us we’re all in it together, and must take a share of the pain.

I’m struggling to see much pain coming my way from today’s spending review.  I was a little concerned about rural bus services (most of which are subsidised, and in a car-dominated world would struggle without a subsidy), but it seems they’re only suffering a small cut[1].  On the positive side, quite a lot of worthwhile investment is not being cut.  Probably the worst cop-out is the amount of pork-barrel spending that lives on, such as sacred-cow bribes to today’s pensioners (even as younger folks see our future entitlements reduced) – but we knew that already.

How do I escape?  Well, partly it’s the usual story: they’ve managed expectations so the actual announcement is ‘not so bad’.  But more to the point, it’s where I’m coming from: as a single working person, the system ordinarily expects me to pay for everything but get nothing back.  I haven’t lost anything in the spending review, because I had nothing to lose[2]!

Actually there is one more substantial loss.  The changes to the pension rules are going to make it harder to afford a house before I retire.  But that’s more than offset by the apparently-substantial reductions in money going in to the housing market to keep it unaffordable.  Under successive government’s housing policies I’ve spent many years paying three times over[3] into the pockets of far richer people, but finally there seems to be a real prospect of that correcting.  If house prices fall sufficiently then restrictions on what I can save cease to matter!  🙂

Having said all that, I’m concerned the spending review looks hopelessly inadequate to tackle the dire state of public finances.  I’m more impressed by bold moves like the Scottish parliament’s getting rid of 25% of NHS management posts, if (as seems unlikely) we can take that at face value.

[1] As witness the extremely unusual fact that the bus companies en masse were the stock market’s best performers today on hearing the news.

[2] The budget is of course a different story.

[3] First through taxes, some of which are channeled into housing, both in ‘affordable’ and ‘social’ housing, and in housing benefit.  Second through rent, which is inflated by having to compete with housing benefit recipients who have no incentive to seek a good deal.  And third, if I get rich enough to buy, by prices inflated by all that public money, including not least the inflated yields (rents) for property pimps.

Train+Boris-bike

I don’t think I’ve blogged this before.  Has anyone?

When you get a train ticket valid via London, it includes a tube journey to connect the mainline stations of your arrival and departure.  Or you can walk it – some connections are not unpleasant (for example, Victoria to Paddington is 40 minutes and largely across the park).

Now London has Boris-bikes, we have at our fingertips an altogether more pleasant alternative.  But since I rarely go to London, I’d much rather get one-off journeys than a season ticket.

So, rail companies and TFL, when will you start selling via-London tickets that offer the option of one journey on a Boris-bike as an alternative to that tube journey?  You know it makes sense!

House hunting again

I’ve just viewed another two houses.  Between them, they seem to sum up a whole lot of what’s wrong in mid-market UK property.

House 1: 1930s (I think) 3 bed semi.  Has potential to be a nice house: decent amount of space, small front garden and larger, very nice back garden, big round bay window in sitting room and front bedroom.  Clearly hadn’t been decorated for some time, with walls quite marked, but the carpets (and glossed-up wood in the sitting room) were in good nick.  But horribly let down by the kitchen and, to a lesser extent, bathroom.  The kitchen was a showstopper: far too small, greasy, smelly, and with a floorboard quite rotted away in the recess where a washing machine should stand.  OK if I were buying and could replace the whole thing, but not to rent.

House 2: modern.  A development called Heritage Park, built around an old foundry which is a beautiful building.  But the greed of the developer glares through this house, which is not part of the old building.  In the pursuit of profits it’s been positioned just a patio’s width from a high wall, and the back rooms on all three floors were very dark (on a bright sunny and amazingly warm day).  No outdoor space in front (just the dark patio behind), and the indoor space is cramped, without even the hallway space for a bike.  Note to developers – if you want to build at that kind of density, build flats not oppressively-cramped houses!  The kitchen and two bathrooms are nice – all that was missing in the other place – but they don’t make up the defects, nor the cheap and tacky feel common to most UK houses built since 1945, or the clouds of flies that emerged when I opened a window.

There are houses that look altogether better than either of those.  They just have a nasty tendency to be in places where broadband connectivity is at best uncertain.  Ho hum.

Rural Broadband

I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business[1].  On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other.  The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!

So here are some thoughts.

Policy Confusion

Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber.  An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity.  The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.

Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal.  They need to be clear.  Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!

Anecdotal

My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004.  2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005.  Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book.  ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!

The Sword of Damocles

The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband.  We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address.  This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.

Alternative Solutions

For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband?  Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines).  Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds.  Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub.  This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.

[1] My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises.  The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.