Ten year glitch

I’m old enough to remember when there was no internet. When it eventually arrived, I quite happily put up with dial tones, bleeps and a three month wait – just to get connected. It was fun, almost.

Back then, a 56K modem was exciting. Today, if you connected a badger to a telephone line, it would provide a faster internet experience, but back when Kappa jackets were not chav accessories, 56K was Star Trek stuff.

I did a speed test on my BT line yesterday as I was concerned it was suddenly taking me three days to download the latest edition of The Times on my iPad. I was informed that the connection was barely achieving 0.2mbps. For people with friends, this means it’s rubbish. Our badger friend would chuckle at my result, spitting complex HTML5-laden websites out of its bottom every second.

The last time I checked, we were getting 6mbps.

So, for the first time in ten years, I had to call BT’s technical support line. I’ve heard some stories about these people, but never experienced them first hand because, to be perfectly fair, our broadband service has not faltered once in a decade.

The chap who answered my call was, as I have been led to expect, Indian. He was perfectly friendly and had a good grasp of the English language. And why shouldn’t he? I imagine many of the stories I’ve heard and have read probably came with a fair degree of misguided preconceptions.

He did a check on our landline. After quite a long time, this proved we had a landline. He then diverted me to speedtester.bt.com which asked me to say ‘yes’ to something, enter my telephone number and then click ‘submit’.

We both waited. No pleasantries were exchanged. Just slow, measured breathing on both our parts. We’d spent a fair amount of time together now – these were comfortable silences.

BT’s speedtester website looks like something I knocked up in 1995 when I first discovered Microsoft Front Page. It may well have been one of my creations, actually, because, after about twelve minutes, it said there was an error. The error was me, apparently – I’d tried the test more than once within an hour. I hadn’t.

We gave up, eventually. Tired, slightly emotional and, I suspect, marginally close to suggesting we go out for a beer, my new Indian friend suddenly exclaimed, ‘Mr Ellis, hang on. You had 20mb upgrade on eighteenth of the months. After ten days, your speed will be normal.’

Upgrade? I’ve had no upgrade, I tell him. But he was insistent. BT had kindly upgraded me but had failed to warn me about the ten day period when the connection would inexplicably soil itself and return to Neolithic speeds.

‘Perhaps they tried to ring and you were out,’ he offered. Bless him. He was trying to make me feel better.

But no, BT hadn’t bothered to tell me. So, rather than turning to the all-to-easy target of outsourced support operations, maybe its critics should look a little closer to home. Laughable diagnostic websites and woefully inadequate communication with its customers is a far bigger problem than some guy sitting in Bangladesh who is only allowed to run telephone line tests and apologise on their behalf.

An ode to my future wife

Wedding invites: troublesome

It was a simple request, chosen specifically because it was foolproof, impossible to get wrong and wouldn’t land me in trouble with the police, the government or inadvertently involve me in the hacking scandal.

“Just peel off the paper invite which has been lightly glued onto the card,” said Lindsey.

Before this, the only significant responsibility I’d undertaken for the wedding was asking her dad if I could marry his daughter. By comparison, this was in Blue Peter activity territory.

As it transpired, I’d have had an easier time building Tracy Island out of toilet rolls and Fairy bottles.

Basically, I made a right old hash of it.

I was immediately told off and informed that I must not attempt to modify the invitations ever again. I wasn’t particularly upset with this instruction, but did feel a little bit pathetic. After all, the task with which I’d been entrusted could have been performed by a very small child. A small child wouldn’t have left the card looking like the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb. Nor would they have insisted that they could fix it and make it look less like a nuclear wipe out and more like a wedding invitation, only to be told by someone cleverer than them that it would be a far safer idea to go and make a cup of tea instead.

There’s a brilliant BBC3 program called Don’t Tell The Bride. The premise is simple; give the groom twelve grand and tell him to organise the entire wedding. All of it. Without ever speaking to the bride.

How I have laughed at these poor chaps as they grapple with the life-and-death trip wire that is The Right Wedding Dress. I chortled, as they picked bridesmaid dresses more suited to a night out in Lava and Ignite. I practically soiled myself laughing at the guy who blew nearly the entire budget on a trip to Vegas, leaving the majority of the bride’s family without a wedding invitation. “You’ve broken my heart,” she sobbed at the airport, uninvited brother looking on wearily in the background. It is human misery at its absolute best.

However, I have a newfound respect for these guys. How they do it is beyond me. The program only features the main bits – what it fails to highlight is the need to fill in all the gaps. The tiny little touches that make a wedding. The things that, as a guest, you spot, comment on and ultimately remember.

Take ‘favours’. When Lindsey suggested we offer them to every guest, I very nearly canceled the entire do. I had no intention of being lumbered with promises to assist cleaning out Uncle Kev’s shed, or of providing lifts for the older generation without vehicles. And there was no way I would ever help someone fit a bathroom. Particularly if it involved tiling.

To my relief, I learned that favours are just little presents you give to everyone. But I didn’t know that. And because I didn’t even know of their existence, they would not have been present at the wedding, had I organised it.

I’m lucky. My future wife has almost single-handedly directed the whole thing. With the help of some very creative and generous friends and family, and myself occasionally destroying cards or suggesting entirely inappropriate music (Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety during the wedding breakfast was apparently a poor idea) she’s conducted everything without ever turning into a ‘bridezilla’ or boring everyone to death about it.

I also know it is going to be one hell of a do – because of her.

I’ve long-held the belief that a wedding is primarily about one person – the bride. Us blokes turn up, say our bit at the altar, thank everyone during the speeches, get ridiculed by our best mate in front of our entire family and, eventually, end up at the bar with a long-lost uncle nursing a Jack Daniels. None of that’s particularly difficult, but what Lindsey’s doing is.

And I can’t wait.

British Smash

Concerned about British Gas’s forthcoming astronomical price rises? Don’t be. Chris Jansen, their MD, is here to help.

“Personally, I’ll help any customer,” he said on TV recently, adjusting his cape and superhero mask. “Email me at chris.jansen@britishgas.co.uk.”

So, I did. Having been with British Gas for over ten years, I felt I deserved at least an explanation as to why my bills are about to be smashed by an 18% price hike. After all, in the ten years they’ve paid someone else to pump gas and electricity into my house, the only offer I’ve had from them is for boiler cover. Or a new boiler. Free of charge, I wondered? No, I’d have to pay for either, but they would send the nice smiley man you see on the adverts who definitely wouldn’t rape me.

In my email, I asked why British Gas deemed it necessary to increase their prices by so much and why they chose now, of all times, to do it. Steer clear of bullshit, I told him. I also highlighted that I’m an EnergySmart customer, which has marginal benefits.

To my surprise, Chris replied and, after a long winded, bullshit-ridden list of excuses about rising fuel costs, recommended I switch to EnergySmart.

Now, forgive me for being pedantic, but if you say you’re going to personally respond to customers, surely you should be true to your word and do just that. What I received was quite clearly a formulated reply. A template knocked up by a copy writer quickly after Chris’ appearance on Sky News. Something he could ask someone else to send to muggles like myself who bothered to get in touch.

To cut a long story short, after threatening to go and live in the woods and thus avoid the need for gas and electric, Chris replied somewhat more personably and offered to stuff my walls with cavity insulation, free of charge. It wasn’t clear whether he’d come round to do it himself, but he was quite insistent that I should take him up on his offer. He also pointed out that I could gain Nectar Points because I’m a British Gas customer. That would be great, if I had a Nectar card and if I actually wanted a pair of one-size-fits-all gloves or a new torch. Mind you, if these price rises continue, I’ll probably be thankful of them.

Lastly, the money shot. He brought out the big guns. Something that would win back my trust. SuperChris would credit my account with £75…

…in nine months time. If I’ve bothered to stay with them.


An update on PostAWeek2011

I’m not entirely sure how many regular readers I have. Encouragingly, I’ve got a good few subscribers and seem to get the odd re-tweet. Therefore, if you’ve been here before and are not my mum, my fiancee, my mate Jeff or me, thanks for coming back.

Right or wrong, clever or stupid, I decided to participate in WordPress’s PostAWeek2011 challenge back in January. The premise for which is simple – write something every week and post it on your blog. Easy, yeah?

Originally, I had a crack at PostADay2011. If you imagine PostAWeek2011 being a kickabout in the local park, its more frequent sibling is akin to playing against the current Barcelona team. On your own. Naked. Tied to an old man.

It’s hard.

So, obviously, I gave up.

Posting something every week has actually turned out to be a little easier than I thought. The briefest of conversations, a second-long glance at a situation… even biscuits. Inspiration is literally everywhere.

For that reason, I recommend that you give this a go. It doesn’t matter how confident you are at writing, or if you’re speling is as bad as mine – trust me, you will feel better for letting it all out occasionally.

As WordPress say – express yourself. Start a blog. The world is a better place with more words.

Brumming brilliant

I’m going to admit something which might be a little controversial – particularly if you’re an avid listener of Wittertainment on Radio 5 Live and laugh along to Mark Kermode’s rants.

Here goes…

I liked the first Michael Bay Transformers movie.

Why? Well, mainly because I lost a transformer somewhere in Northampton when I was about six. To this day, it’s one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. Some bastard has probably still got it and is no doubt ‘brumming’ it across his living room floor, every swipe across the carpet accompanied by a wry smile in my direction. It’s mine. But he’s got it and he’s going to keep playing with it until his arm falls off.

I loved Transformers as a kid. They were as big a part of my childhood as Sensible Soccer, giant gob stoppers and Panini stickers. Seeing them come to life in an all-guns-blazing live action film brought out the little boy in me.

As a director, Michael Bay isn’t Francis Ford Coppola. He isn’t even Thor Freudenthal who, despite a supersonically cool name, directed Hotel For Dogs. Which is about a hotel. And dogs. And that’s it.

No, Michael Bay makes films that rear up to your face and shout incoherently at it for at least two and a half hours while simultaneously stabbing you in the ear with a pointy sound wave. Expect anything which could be loosely described as ‘cultured’ and you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Last night, I went to see Transformers 3 and, after the utter tripe that was Transformers 2, wasn’t expecting much. I didn’t get much, either.

It starts off – as 99% of all American films do – with a little bit of creative history rewriting. Remember the moon landing? Well, it all definitely happened, but apparently we didn’t see the bit where they found a big Decepticon spaceship and a dead robot. No, while that was happening, they played us some fake footage instead so that we thought everything was fine. Unbeknownst to us, everything had gone dreadfully wrong and during their return home parade the astronauts were secretly harbouring the sickening realisation that, one day, we were all going to be killed to death with lasers and pointy things by massive alien robots.

The film then fast forwards a bit and we join Sam, played by the eminently vacuous Shia Labeouf. This boy, whilst possessing a name which suggests he might be some kind of ninja frenchman, could bore an inanimate object to death. I could have performed better than him and I’m very rubbish at acting.

Sam is mates with the Autobots (are you keeping up?) who are still really hard but more cuddly than the Decepticons and are intent on keeping peace on Earth. Everyone’s happy (apart from those astronauts, who have presumably been trembling behind their sofas for the last sixty years).

Then, everything goes very wrong indeed and the mother of all fights breaks out. Robots punch each other continuously in the face and generally make a terrible mess of Chicago.

But what’s it like, you ask? Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve long since gone to another part of the web. Never mind.

For those that are still with me, let’s start with the overweight elephant in the room which is the film’s rather odd stab at humour. It simply doesn’t work. This is mainly because you can’t hear a word anyone is saying. Take the two little Laurel and Hardy robots – they are clearly there for comic effect, but because their voices simply sound like a collection of clicking and bleeping noises, you simply don’t get to hear the start, middle or punch line of any of their jokes. You’d have more of a laugh listening to the inner workings of your watch.

In fact, you can’t hear anything in this movie apart from eardrum-shattering noises. I watched an IMAX screening which appeared to have The Rolling Stones’ PA hidden behind the screen. I’ve never heard quite so much subsonic material in a movie. They were the kind of sub 30z rumbles which either make you feel physically sick or poo yourself. They were, indeed, brilliant.

I was also disappointed by Optimus Prime’s trailer which for all intents and purposes looked like an oversized Oliver Adams sandwich van. I didn’t notice this in the first film, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it last night; its corrugated silver cover shining in the film’s ever-present sunlight and promising warm sausage rolls, cans of diet coke and over-priced sandwiches.

But, you know what? I enjoyed it. I can’t remember any of it, or what it was about, but I enjoyed it.

Mark Kermode detests these films. ‘It’s just robots hitting robots,’ he said. He’s right – it is, but that’s exactly what I did with my toy robots on the living room floor and there was nothing wrong with that.