Monday, 29 November 2010

Ad Hoc Property Guardians and my deposit

I thought I was onto a good thing, maybe I was. You might have heard about property guardians, there was a bit of coverage in the newspapers last summer, but not so much now. If a property like a house or block of flats or offices or whatever is empty, and going to be empty for a while, then instead of hiring a security firm to keep squatters and vandals out, the landlord can hire a live-in property guardian.

The landlord gets someone taking care of the property, the guardian gets cheap accommodation.

I was a guardian with Ad Hoc, one of the two big firms in London. I was paying £50 or so a week and it was okay. Sure the properties were shit holes, but it was cheap and I was skint. The deposit was £300, my overdraft took care of that.

The first place I stayed at was a former council flat in Sudbury. It was freezing and didn't have the gas hooked up for about a month after I moved in last winter. The building was to be demolished in 'about eighteen months'. The other tenants were slowly being moved out whilst I stayed. I started to do the place up, got some bookshelves from Ikea, acquired a fridge freezer, even started painting the walls.

Alas, after three months I was given my notice and found a new place to be a guardian at. That council flat has now been demolished, I drive past the site every so often, the paint was barely dry.

The second place was a rather neat three bedroom semi-detached house in Wembley, right near the station. It had a huge garden, thick with brambles, but it was summer and I was 'between jobs'. There was no heating there either, no gas too, but the weather was fine, so I didn't mind so much. I think they said I would have six months there so I acquired gardening equipment and set to work clearing brambles and putting in potatoes and tomatoes.

Alas, after four weeks I was given my notice and again found a new place to be a guardian at. There's now about ten people living in that semi-, the living room and dining room been turned into additional bedrooms. I wonder if they've got to my potatoes.

The third place was a former old people's home. There were about twenty other guardians staying there in the various granny flats. My flat was on the ground floor and smelt bad. I knew better than to set up home there and kept most of my belongings in storage a storage locker.

Months passed, with such low rent, I was able to start tackling my considerable debts.

At some point, I don't know what came over me, but I grew weary of sleeping on the floor, sitting on banana boxes and not having anywhere to shelve my books, so I emptied out my storage locker and furnished my flat. Less than a week later we were given our notice and told to leave.

Sure, Ad Hoc were quick to find all the guardians new places to stay, offering empty properties round the A406 North Circular Road of out in East London, but the thought of living with the constant threat of having to move on was too depressing so I decided to move to the private rental market. You go to, figure out how much rent you can afford and move to the best property that comes up.<

When I told the nice woman at Ad Hoc that I wasn't going to move into their next place she seemed disappointed.

It was a good deal while it lasted, £50 a week rent, in London, but never knowing how long I'd be at any property.

Anyhoo, its been about eight weeks since I moved out, I'm still chasing up getting my deposit back. I've been phoning them every week, it sounds much like the other guardians at that last place are still trying to get their deposits back too, but to no avail. They have my account details, their accountant has apparently been on the case for at least a fortnight, but still nothing.

They've got my £300 and they seem to be incapable or unwilling to give it back.

Should I have written off the deposit? Or just not have paid my last six week's rent? Is that the more civilized or sensible thing to do?

There's been no word about whether they're taking a cut of the deposit to clean and repair any wear and tear, but it's been eight weeks so that's a moot point now.

If they weren't going to return the deposit could they have not made it clear at some point in the past, or charged a higher rent. But no, just an endless stream of we're working on it, you'll having by the end of the week, the end of next week, etc. It's not so much that they're withholding it, just not competent enough to arrange giving me my money back.

Yay, I got my deposit back! It took eight weeks and three days, and they did take a small cut, for cleaning I guess which is fair enough.

Anyhoo, success!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Real users

The other day I was reading an interesting article from the depths of the internet about 'real users', the vast majority of computer users and how they are different from the rest of us.

It was from 2003, some website developer was talking about how on his ISP's home page there was a link to a 'search' page, which had a list of links to that era's top search engines, like Yahoo, and MetaCrawler and so on, sites that have all but disappeared now. The article went on to say that when it was time to revamp the site, the developer got rid of the search page and just replaced it with a google search windowy thing or something, if people really wanted to use Yahoo, or Metacrawler they'd know the URL by now and could just type that into the address bar.

When they changed the website, there was a avalanche of complaints from customers who liked the old 'search page', and who couldn't find Yahoo anymore, it was like it had ceased to exist. The developer couldn't quite understand it, but it seemed the vast majority of people who used their ISP, had set the ISP homepage as their homepage and were otherwise completely lost if they couldn't just click through to search.

They are the real users of computers, people who don't quite understand the way it works or even think they need to understand they way it works.

In the comments people added their own stories of woe, stories of encounters with 'real users' who used computers every day, but didn't quite 'get' it.

Like people who don't use the address bar in their browser, they only ever get to things through having google as their homepage, and just entering everything there. The very existence of a URL is a mystery to them. This still happens, in 2008 the technology blogReadWriteWeb was lamenting how the vast majority or respondents in some market research don't use the address bar.

Even in February 2010 ReadWriteWeb did an article that had the words Facebook and Login in the title, magic google juice flowed and it became the top result when you search google for 'Facebook login'. People arrived at as site that wasn't Facebook and complained they couldn't login, three thousand or so people leaving comments along the lines of
Ok If I have to I will comment,I love facebook so right now just want to log in if thats ok with Keep up the good work...
They were completely lost.

I've grown up with computers and the internet, I have a little bit of a blind spot for how other people can not have the same understanding. The other day I was asked "What's the difference between Chrome and the internet?" Sure there are gentle answers to such questions, but all I could do was pat their hand and say "Don't you worry your pretty little head."

'Real users' get scared on Microsoft Word when you put on to make nonprinting characters visible. They're having problems with the layout, so you click the icon to see what's going on, and suddenly they protest, "No, I don't want that!", so you patiently click them off, and mystically explain that there's a few tabs there and a section break where it shouldn't be. The 'real user' looks at you in utter disbelief, wondering how you can possibly know such things.

There's something in that "No, I don't want that!" cry, it reminds me of the sort of thing my three year old niece would say.

'Real users' get confused when you move the icons around on their desktop, or if an icon gets obscured by some other window in front of it. If they can't see it, it has ceased to exist. Its like playing peekaboo with a six month old nephew "Where's teddy gone?", "There he is... behind the cushion that I just put in front of him."

Hmm, a six month old can figure this out, why can't 'real users'? What's wrong with them?

I kind of understand, in the early eighties, about eight hours after we first acquired an Amstrad CPC 464, I remember my brother playing 3D Monster Chase, I watched him for hours, my brain/eyes couldn't understand what was going on on screen, its seemed like some kind of coloured bowtie matching puzzle game, rather than the low-tech Doom clone game that it was. It was a few days before I could comprehend the image as a 3D scene.

'Real users' haven't had that epiphany yet, of realising that Windows are representations layers of panes that can be moved about. 'Real users' don't get that nonprinting characters are helpful and don't print.

The thing is, 'real users' can be spectacularly successful in their endeavors. Just pressing enter lots of times to get to a new page in Word doesn't seem to affect the success of their careers. Sure it may mess up the rest of the document if you need to change something on the first page, but that can be fixed easily.

If people knew about manual page breaks then documents wouldn't need to be 'fixed easily'.

The success of Windows and Vista comes down to making computers dead easy to use, so real users can get churning out poorly laid out documents quicker, without having to learn the ropes. Google's success was in getting to porn just by typing the one word then clicking, without having to remember any of that "http://www." business.

As someone who isn't a 'real user', a geek possibly, it dismay's me that rather than making 'real users' understand things and expand their mind's instead life just gets easier for them.

But no no, the vast majority of people are real-users.

In most offices, when you stand up and look around, most people you see are real users. They're working hard, getting stuff done, but they don't know what they're doing really.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Am I Spartacus?

At the weekend there, in the aftermath of Paul Chambers losing his appeal on the #twitterjoke this, there was a great outpouring of something on Twitter, thousands of people retweeting his original 'menacing' tweet about blowing up Nottingham's Robin Hood airport. It was a great show of solidarity.

But something bugged me, there was something that didn't feel right about tweeting
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!! #IAmSpartacus
Its that bit at the end, appending the hashtag. Its incorrect, just as incorrect as getting the 'may be a joke twibbon'. Its a disclaimer and that's wrong. Twitter shouldn't need such things, the context is inherent to the medium.

Its like if in the original Spartacus scene, the folk joining in stood up and said "I'm Spartacus! Just kidding, I'm not really, you were right the first time". It agrees with the original charge.

If the sentiment you want to express is solidarity then don't undermine it by joking.

The show of solidarity would have been more profound without the #iamspartacus hashtag, and with a wider range of targets being menaced. "I've left a suitcase of explosives in Victoria Station, you have 28 minutes to find it", "A plane will crash in the next seven hours", "I just pushed a man under a train", etc, purposefully tying up so much of the security services' time in investigating 'menacing' messages on twitter, that the authorities would have no choice but to admit they were wrong, that the twitter medium is not to be taken seriously.

I had this similar idea a few months back, the NATO phonetic alphabet thing, Foxtrot, Bravo, November, etc, to do a similar alphabet using terrorist keywords. So, if any authorities are monitoring voice phonecalls, they'd be snowed under with assassinations, bombs, capture, hijackings and so on.

Advice for student who riot in London

From FITWatch
If you fear you may be arrested as a result of identification by CCTV, FIT or press photography;

DON'T panic. Press photos are not necessarily conclusive evidence, and just because the police have a photo of you doesn't mean they know who you are.

DON'T hand yourself in. The police often use the psychological pressure of knowing they have your picture to persuade you to 'come forward'. Unless you have a very pressing reason to do otherwise, let them come and find you, if they know who you are.

DO get rid of your clothes. There is no chance of suggesting the bloke in the video is not you if the clothes he is wearing have been found in your wardrobe. Get rid of ALL clothes you were wearing at the demo, including YOUR SHOES, your bag, and any distinctive jewellery you were wearing at the time. Yes, this is difficult, especially if it is your only warm coat or decent pair of boots. But it will be harder still if finding these clothes in your flat gets you convicted of violent disorder.

DON'T assume that because you can identify yourself in a video, a judge will be able to as well. "That isn't me" has got many a person off before now.

DO keep away from other demos for a while. The police will be on the look-out at other demos, especially student ones, for people they have put on their 'wanted' list. Keep a low profile.

DO think about changing your appearance. Perhaps now is a good time for a make-over. Get a haircut and colour, grow a beard, wear glasses. It isn't a guarantee, but may help throw them off the scent.

DO keep your house clean. Get rid of spray cans, demo related stuff, and dodgy texts / photos on your phone. Don't make life easy for them by having drugs, weapons or anything illegal in the house.

DO get the name and number of a good lawyer you can call if things go badly. The support group has the names of recommended lawyers on their site. Take a bit of time to read up on your rights in custody, especially the benefits of not commenting in interview.

DO be careful who you speak about this to. Admit your involvement in criminal damage / disorder ONLY to people you really trust.

DO try and control the nerves and panic. Waiting for a knock on the door is stressful in the extreme, but you need to find a way to get on with business as normal. Otherwise you'll be serving the sentence before you are even arrested.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

London food

I don't recalled whether I blogged about it last time I had jellied eels, I meant to, but it probably didn't happen.

As you may know, I do live in London, and in the same way that Scottish people eat haggis, Londoners eat jellied eels, its their staple diet. For hundreds of years the only source of protein for dwellers of England's capital was the eels they fished out of the Thames. When other sources of protein came along Londoners stopped eating eels in quite the quantities they did, but some jellied eel shops still cling on.

There are places that have been selling the same thing for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, jellied eels, pie n mash, coffee or tea in a polystyrene cup. Its almost amazing that these are the only things on the menu, workers would eat the same thing every day, for sometimes their entire lives.

The again, this one time in Glasgow I did have a doner kebab every day for a month.
Jellied eels
These are jellied eels, prepared as follows:- you get your eel from the Thames, cut it into 'rounds', boil it up so all the collogen-like stuff leaks out, then cooled so the jelly forms round it, the served into a bowl and consumed with chilli vinegar.

It tastes vile, amongst the jellie, the fatty skin and the grizzly meaty bit, there's a wee knot of bone, that I guess you're supposed to crunch up and eat too. I don't understand how people could have eaten this stuff to such a degree, but they did, and so I plough through the bowl.

There's more jelly than meat, more jelly than eel, so you're left with a bowl of jelly, are you supposed to drink it, or just leave it so the waitresses can recycle and use it in the next day's fare?
Pie and mash
My dining companion had the companion dish, pie 'n' mash, topped up with 'liquor'. The pie tasted a bit like cardboard, the liquor, apparently made with cornflour and parsley tasted of polyfilla. The mash was okay.

Its the staple food of the Londoner, as vile as it is, its never going to die out, its always going to be available. Try it today, and again a year later, just in case.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Antithesis of Fake-Charities

There was an article in the Guardian today about Help for Heroes, the £100m charity that started three years back with some couple doing a charity bike-ride.

I found myself wondering what charitable thing I could do to make the world a better place. Other than slaving away at my job and donating, other than getting friends and family to sponsor me for doing what I would otherwise do for free, what could I do?

How about this a website with a questionnaire, and after you fill it in, it suggests a range of charities you could donate to that matches your personal preferences, also "other people with similar preferences to yours recommend these charities". You'd get to tick boxes matching the charities you approve of.

Furthermore, so you want to donate £50, this website would divide that money appropriately.

To start with would be a short fallible list of charities, that are somehow tagged by geographic area, reach and what their constituency is, and to what degree they receive funding from the state, or voluntary donations or corporate donations.

Small charities could get more exposure and more donations by their donors being enthusiastic, and 'sticky'.

Some part of the algorithm could be biased in favour of small or 'struggling' charities, I dunno, some kind of flip side to the fake charities thing.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Monday, 8 November 2010

Paying with money

As the new flat slowly becomes populated with furniture and furnishings I find myself spending time queuing up at the tills in Ikea. The folk in front pay with cash, the pay with a huge wedge of twenties, whilst I pay for my purchases with my debit card.

For a few moments I ponder what circumstances lead to people paying for their Ikea purchases with cash, before my mind wanders onwards to whether I should by Ikea chocolate for 39p.

Today in the thrilling world of Twitter, @Pavlunka tweeted the following factoid:-

Something crystalised in my mind, tax evasion isn't just carried out by high earners, the fatcats with off-shore accounts, its also carried out by by the waiters working in restaurants for cash in hand, paying no national insurance or income tax. Me, I pay about 28% of my labours to the state in Income Tax and National Insurance, if I worked cash in hand, I'd be paying none of that.

I pondered, since there are more low earners than high earners, is it possible that lower earners commit more tax evasion than high earners? How could I find out the spread, where would such details of who carries out tax evasion?

It took a wee bit of google-juice, but I found the National Fraud Authority and in January they released the Annual Fraud Indicator report, which had the sort of pie chart I was looking for:-

The 'Tax Gap' being the difference between what the government think they should be collecting and what they actually collect. They don't publish this information often. Anyhoo, rather helpfully there was some spiel about how Tax Avoidance isn't Tax Evasion, isn't considered fraud and isn't counted in the £15billion figure that Pavlunka quoted:-

Actually, Pavlunka's factoid was a tiny bit incorrect, £15billion is the total tax fraud, the tax evasion sector is £7billion. Still tax evasion is seven times the benefit fraud figure, in an ideal world seven times as much effort should be put into combating it. I wonder if that split of resourcing stands.

So, after wandering round the room musing on the pie chart, I thought to question it. Whilst it was the most reliable and detailed information available, there was no other more reliable or detailed that I could find, just how reliable was the information, where did it come from, how could the National Fraud Authority know? Luckily there was a footnote.
So, aye, its all guesswork.

Anyhoo, in answer to my line of thought about how much tax evasion the waiters who are being paid in cash and then spend it in Ikea, well, that's not 'tax evasion', that's 'the hidden economy' and its only 7.5% of the tax gap.

Now in my ideal world there would still be tax fraud, the rule of law will never be absolute, but as long as the cash in hand folk are defrauding the system less than the tax evaders and the tax avoiders, then all is good.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Return...

Sky have hooked up broadband in the flat, its costing £10 a month for Sky for unlimited downloady and £13.50 a month from BT. Sure the whole thing could be cheaper, but £23.50 a month between two people ain't so bad, heck its's barely two beers.

In the weeks and months since I've had such bandwidth, I've had loads of ideas of stuff to blog about in detail, such as:-
  • That advert where the girl makes whale noises and says she's like a 'fish out of water', with no idea what 'fish out of water' means
  • How the Housing Benefit cap affects very few people and just those in London, and possibly proposing a lower cap for other parts of the country, based on regional average rents.
  • More videos of me playing cover versions on guitar and dreaming of being in a band
  • Madcap money making schemes
  • Drawings
  • Reviews of stuff
  • Photies of the dinner I cooked today
But really my heart isn't in it so much.

I went to The Plimptons first ever London gig last Thursday night, it was the first time I'd since them in about two years, maybe more. I took lots of photies. Its taken me a few days to get round to putting them through Photoshop and upload to Flickr and Songkick.

Actually, there's a wee gap in the website market there, maybe its been filled by various applications and more recent version of stuff, but the gap in the market is this:- to upload a batch of around fifty photos to Flickr, Songkick, Facebook, blog and MySpace, I need to upload them five times, I'd rather like to just upload them once, fill in the titles and tags and descriptions once, and some web app/service copies them to each of the aforementioned social networks.

Sure, you can share Flickr photies on Facebook, but its much better to have natively hosted photies there, and you can't link photies into Songkick, they host their own.

I don't care about all those network's server space, not my problem if they all hold duplicate photies, I just don't want to have to upload it all five times.

Anyhoo, so I slung up a few dozen photies, and I'm quite proud of them. My style is black and white, blurry, dark and high-contrast.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
I feel very self-conscious using the flash on my camera, its not that I think people will mind, its more of that they'll see it at all. By raising the black level and lowering the white level, its brings out more detail in what would otherwise be dark shots in dark venues.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
It was only after I'd taken a few photies that I realised the candle in the shot would just be a big white spot rather than anything recognisable.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
Cropping shots so that they are wide and narrow, I like those too, it makes up for if I've accidentally cut someone's head off in the original shot, I just cut everyone up, and it helps draw the viewer's attention to stuff like the pint Martin's holding.
The Snap Elect - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
I'm also quite fond of crowd shots, not only to show that there are actually other people at the gigs I go to, but also, the type of person, whether they're paying attention to the band on stage or talking amongst themselves, how many other photographers there are.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
I like to think that this sort of photo is iconic, the act of the singer being photographed is more important than the shot itself.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05
Sometimes the shots are so blurry, there's nothing for it but to crank up the cropping and the levels so much, and it kind of ends up looking good. This could be an album cover, or a t-shirt or wallpaper or something.
The Plimptons - The George Tavern - 2010-11-05

So, The Plimptons third album "00s Nostalgia with The Plimptons" is launched 20th November 2010 at Nice n Sleazy in Glasgow, and its great, I know, cos I've heard it.