Category Archives: Business

Yorkshire – credit where due

I’ve just got back from a weekend away. It was a chance to stop worrying about my current financial problems and lack of decent employment, for a brief period (although ironically, by spending money).
There were some mistakes along the way. I took my old Nokia 6600 with bluetooth GPS receiver (and an ancient version of TomTom mobile on the phone). Together they make up a usable sat-nav (with very out-of-date maps).
Sadly, I forgot the old pay-as-you-go Vodafone sim card I need to make the thing work. The phone won’t let you do anything without a Vodafone sim card in it, and both me and my girlfriend are on o2.
Luckily my girlfriend can read a map pretty well (because I’m rubbish at it).

Also, we were going to be travelling for 5 hours each way.
On the day we left, I spent most of the morning picking music for my iPhone (my collection has now got too big to just synchronise it all).
A couple of hours into the journey, when the DAB reception was falling apart (see below), I reached for the iPhone, then realised I’d left the cable that connects it to the radio, at home. Balls. Oh well – maybe we can pick one up somewhere on the way?

Before leaving, we went looking for cheap hotels. There was a good guide to getting cheap hotel rooms on MoneySavingExpert, but the best hotel deal was regarding Travelodge’s £19-per-night offer. Sadly, the deal involved booking your room at least 21 days in advance, and we were booking about 5 days before we left.

We looked around a lot online, and got more and more frustrated. Not just at the lack of availability so close to Easter (we had after all, left it quite late), but also at the fact that some hotels increase their prices during the Easter period. Why? Because they can.
I can certainly see the sense in this from a business perspective, but it did put a lot of them out of our price range.

Price comparison sites were fairly rubbish as well, due to them all listing hotels “FROM per night”.
While this is great in November, when you enter the dates during the Easter holiday, you find that they’ve added another 50% to that price.
There was a lot of “the f**kin robbing b****rds!” coming from the living room that week.

We did find an amazing-sounding hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by Buddhists.
While I was initially concerned about staying in a hotel run by a religious group (of any denomination), there didn’t seem to be anything too bad about the place.
It offers only vegetarian-friendly breakfasts (which both suited my girlfriend and didn’t bother me, as I don’t have a cooked breakfast very often).
Also, smoking/alcohol is banned from all rooms, which I assume would sound off-putting to undesirables.
I instantly assumed that a Buddhist retreat would be quite simplistic and cut-off, but all rooms come with free wifi.
It wasn’t expensive either.
Sadly, this was fully booked.

With time running out, I remembered that LateRooms.com had got us out of a hole on a previous occasion.
Then, we had actually driven all the way to the South coast (of England), without much planning at all, and were struggling to find anywhere to stay. We asked in several B&Bs, but the people of Torquay mostly told us they didn’t rent rooms “just for one night”. If I’m honest, I can’t imagine staying a whole week in Torquay.
I think I’d just got my iPhone at the time, so with the help of Google, and Laterooms (who need an iPhone app if they don’t have one already!), we finally managed to find somewhere to stay.
LateRooms helped us again this time, and we had found our rooms within the hour.

Customer experiences

While I was away, I experienced varying customer service from loads of different places, so thought I’d tell you all about those that performed well (and those who didn’t).

Welcome Break – stopped at Hopwood Services for a cup of tea.
It has a large pond (or a small lake) with tables overlooking it, but unfortunately it was raining, so we sat inside.
It is quite a large services, with a mobile phone shop inside. I asked at the shop regarding a connection cable, but the only one they had was £12.99. From the look on my face, the person in charge replied “I know that’s expensive – so I could maybe go down to £10”. I declined his offer.
I’d swear I bought my current one for about £3. I agreed I’d go up to maybe £5 given the circumstances, if I happened to spot one somewhere else.

Currys Digital – During the weekend, we happened to wander past a Currys Digital in the street.
I asked regarding my mp3 player connection cable (which lets be honest here – is a 1-2m (tops) cable with one jack plug on either end. It costs pence to produce), and they told me they had just the thing, and would need to nip out back and find them.
The assistant returned with a 1.8m Belkin-branded lead. How much? “£12.99
Completely mad.

I looked in WHSmiths (who had every cable but that one), and Wilkinsons, then stopped looking. I managed the rest of the weekend without the cable. Power to the..err..poor.

Marks and Spencer – We had an interesting lunch at Marks and Spencer’s cafe in York.
On entry, my girlfriend notes a sign that says that one of their ovens is broken, and so food may take longer than usual.
We ordered our hot food and sat down.
You get your drinks at the till, so we had something to drink.

We then waited a long time.
How long do you wait, before wondering if they have somehow lost your order?
There was a few “maybe just another couple of minutes”, before my girlfriend went back up to ask how much longer our food might be.
Turns out they had lost our order, somewhere between the till and the kitchen.
They apologised, and we were given free additional tea/coffee.

When they turned up with our hot food, we were given a full refund of said food.
That’s right – we essentially paid for “tea for two”, and got tea, plus a free refill, plus our hot food. Lunch in total cost us about £1.50.
Hats off to Marks and Spencers for going above and beyond. They realised their mistake, and not only apologised, but also gave us our money back.
Instead of recounting how long we were waiting, or how they lost our order, we can now tell people about how we got a jacket potato and soup for free.

O2 – 3g/Edge is pretty poor up north.
I spent the weekend in various parts of Yorkshire.

The following photo taken from o2’s own coverage checker.

The blue circular-ish bit in the centre is York. They have 3g coverage. The rest of it? Err..no.

York – parking is very expensive.

£1.70 for 1 hour, or £3.40 for 2 hours. Nice zero-discount there for buying additional time. (It does start to get (slightly) cheaper over 2 hours)

Most of York’s main car parks are pay-and-display.
I hate pay and display car parks, especially when sightseeing, as it seems like you’re always clock-watching, and in a rush to make sure some arsehole isn’t about to clamp/tow you.
If you get a bit lost and take a bit longer to get back to your car, who needs the extra stress of wondering if they’ve got a £70 release fine waiting for them?

>So a tip for anyone visiting York – the visitors map given away by the tourist information office has loads of car parks listed. They’re marked “A”, “B”, “C” etc. There are also car parks on there listed as just “other”.
Go to the “other” car parks!
All the ones we tried had barriers, pay-on-exit type, plus were staffed and had opportunities to pay by credit/debit card.

There is a park and ride system in place, but it’s £2.30 for a day return, each.
The first visit to York, we were only there 2-3 hours, which costs £5.10.
Given the choice between paying £4.60 to park miles away and bus in, or paying 50p more for the time we were there and being able to park right in the centre, I know which one I would (and we did) choose.

If there were 4 of you (a family, for example), the park and ride option would be £9.20, yet you can park all day in central York for £10 with the convenience of having all your stuff with you. Park and ride system = FAIL!

Jorvik Viking Centre – York

Incredibly knowledgable staff ready to answer any question.
Very cool/modern videos and models about how/where they found the artifacts.
If you like the little car at Cadbury World, you’ll enjoy the ride at Jorvik Viking Centre, through an odd little village.
The only thing that was disappointing was that some of the exhibits use touchscreens, which I just couldn’t get to work. Either it misinterpreted my keypresses, or just didn’t recognise that I’d touched the screen at all.
Check out Bob the skeleton. He’s definitely had his teeth whitened.

York Castle Museum – York (obviously)
Maybe split it into two trips if you can.
It really is absolutely massive, and we were pretty tired by the end of it.
There’s a very cool Victorian street (I quite like that sort of thing for some reason) with all sorts of shops.

At various times, it gets dark and the streetlights come on.
There’s some nice attention to detail, such as the fact that there was nobody in the bank, as it was a bank holiday.
I was given a free copy of the “Kirkgate Examiner” – a mock victorian newspaper. I believe it’s recently started suffering, as everyone is reading it online.

I was convinced that this was something Banksy had snuck in.

glasssmoother

Mangling board and…”glass smoother”? Uh huh. Of course.

York has some actual old-fashioned streets though.

DAB – Whoever is currently in charge of DAB radio, hasn’t a hope in hell of turning off the FM transmitters anytime soon.
DAB has different multiplexes – if you can pick up say Digital One, then you can listen to Absolute Radio, TalkSport, Amazing Radio (and various others), as they are all on the same multiplex.
There’s also a BBC National one, containing Radio1, 2, 3, 4, 5live, 6music and all the other BBC National stations.
BBC National and Digital One should both be available nationwide.

Well I can tell you that there were quite prolonged periods of quiet time en-route to the North East of England and back, where I failed to find anything on DAB. Granted I was driving, but if DAB is to succeed, it isn’t any good for it to be only usable in one point of a bedroom at home.

Hotels – pretty average.
It’s possibly unfair to complain about the decor of our hotels, as they were the cheapest available. Neither had more than 3 stars, and were chosen by their availability and price.

The first night was spent in a hotel in the middle of nowhere called the Burn Hall.
It doubles as a conference centre for training courses, etc.

I felt a bit uncomfortable staying in a room on the ground floor. I’m not sure why.
We had freeview, but the TV was the most complicated I have ever used.
It defaults to analog, you push for digital. The TV guide didn’t seem capable of letting you scroll channels and go to that channel – scrolling to an interesting sounding show, then hitting like “select” or “go” or whatever, just gave you further information about it. Whoever designed that TV can’t have ever used it.
Nonetheless, the function was there.
The radio (built into the TV, and accessible by pressing one of the teletext buttons…of course!) was a nice addition.

The website lists that each bedroom includes “dial up internet connection (with network cable)”. I’ve no idea what that is. There was a network-lan-cable type jack in the room.
I’d swear that while booking, “free wifi in reception” was mentioned (though I can’t find it now). I managed to just about get a good enough mobile phone signal to (very painfully slowly) access Twitter, on occasion, from one spot in the hotel room.

The food was more of an issue.
As the hotel was in the middle of nowhere, and we didn’t really know the area, coupled with the lack of 3g reception, meant we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant.
There were two food places – a dedicated restaurant, or a kind-of bar which also did food.
The bar had less choice, but both had very complicated menus, with very fancy-sounding food.

As my girlfriend is a vegetarian and I’m a fussy eater, we struggled a bit to find anything that either of us wanted on the bar menu, so “Richardson’s Restaurant” it was.
There were two tables left when we got there. One was in the centre of the room , and one was right by the door to the bar. My girlfriend didn’t like the idea of everyone watching us eat, so we took the one by the bar door.
Draughty, it was.

We both felt very much out of place. Neither of us eats in places that posh normally.
We decided to skip the starter, as there wasn’t really anything either of us wanted on there.
I asked what the “potanesque sauce” (See “Yorkshire Chicken Supreme”) contained, and was told “tomato”. Before I could say “that sounds nice”, the waiter continued with “..garlic, anchovies…” at which point I asked for it sauceless.
What the hell is “fondant potato”? Nothing like a Fondant Fancy, presumably. I decided it was probably just a potato in a funny shape.

When the food arrived, I wasn’t offered ketchup or salt/pepper. I didn’t ask, as it somehow felt awkward to do so.
It turns out that a fondant potato is a roast potato. And yes – in a singular! My dinner was ONE piece of chicken, with ONE roast potato. To make it even more bizarre, it was delivered to me on the biggest plate I’ve had in front of me since I last visited a Hungry Horse.
My girlfriend’s dinner (the Spinach Italian Potato Dumplings) was delivered with a separate bowl of mixed vegetables (because putting some vegetables on the enormous empty plates wasn’t the done thing), so I had some of those.
We did get a second biscuit with our crème brûlée (think it was only meant to come with one) for free, though.
At the included-in-room-price breakfast the following morning, there were sauces in plentiful supply, so clearly posh people still like ketchup.
We made the most of
it, having a cooked breakfast, cereals, toast, AND croissants.

The second night was in a hotel in Malton called The Talbot.
The hotel room was basic. It could have done with a bit of redecoration, and the carpet was a bit dirty in places.
The remote was missing from the TV, which only had the 5 analog channels anyway.

For whatever reason, I had assumed that Malton was a reasonably small, quiet place.
A little town in the countryside with not much going on, thought I.
We lucked out really. On venturing into the town in the evening, we found several bars with loud music and even-louder lairy women out drinking heavily.
One of the louder bars had a sign on the front which said “room vacancies”. I had actually very nearly booked our room there! Online, it sounded like a nice country pub. Ironically, it was out of my price range, thank goodness.
We found an Indian restaurant called Malton Spice, which served enormous curries. Neither me, nor my girlfriend could finish either of ours.

The location of the hotel is really very good. It’s right on the main road on the way in (or out), 2 minutes walk from the centre (with its own car park), but far enough away that you don’t get drunken people wandering past the front shouting.
Sadly, the drunken people were shouting so loudly from the high street they could still be heard from our room. They did eventually shut up, and we got some sleep.
The staff at our hotel were very nice, even letting us remain parked in their car park after check out, for us to have a look around the town, and get some snacks.

Malton has some lovely streets, but is also home to the most hideous window display I’ve seen in a long time. Admittedly this was in a butchers, but pretty hideous nonetheless:

Surely the stuff of taxidermist dreams.
You can’t see the (hopefully not real) fluffy chicks nearby.

Malton as a town seemed to be thriving. In fact, most places seem to be.
There was a slightly odd shopping arcade in Beverley, which had one shop at the front and one at the back, and all empty shops in between. Aside from that, everywhere seemed pretty well.
If I take one thing back from the North-East, it’s that they don’t appear to be doing too badly.
We went to several high streets in a few different towns while travelling, and none were half-filled with empty shops, like some streets in Bristol.

The last day was spent in Goathland (apparently where they shot Heartbeat, but I don’t watch it (if it’s still running) so didn’t know who any of the local celebrity postcards were of). It was perfectly nice, although without any signal on my mobile at all for the entire time I was there.
Incredibly, it might not have mobile or DAB signal, but it IS on Google Streetview!

View Larger Map

Oh and there were very helpful friendly staff at the train station ticket office. We caught an old fashioned steam train to Whitby and back (no time spent in Whitby due to bad planning on our part combined with irregular train timetable), before driving all the way back to Bristol.

Oh and after I put away my Thermos flask and took off my cagoule, I took this photo.
A trainspotter wouldn’t take photos like this:

which made me laugh for some reason.

En-route, we stopped for fuel at a petrol station where I was served by an incredibly bored-looking young man, wondering where his life had all gone so wrong. There’s the back-to-reality reminder that I need to get back to job searching. That’ll be me, this coming weekend.

Pringles! Once you pop, you can’t stop..paying VAT

I’ve been intrigued by this case for a while.

For anyone not following the story, basically the facts are these:
– In the UK, you don’t pay vat on most food, but you do on salted peanuts, crisps, and other “potato sticks, potato puffs and similar products made from the potato, or from potato flour, or from potato starch” (VAT Act 1994 (from Sky News’ article)

– For that reason, last year, the makers of Pringles attempted to get them reclassified to pretty much anything else, so they could get out of paying VAT.
They succeeded legally in proving that Pringles weren’t a crisp, because they have such little potato content (around 42%). They also argued that they had 33% fat and didn’t taste like potato.
That’s just been overturned, so they will now have to pay VAT.

More details from Sky News here.

Now I’ve got several problems with this.
I’m amazed from a PR perspective, that in this day and age where people want to know what’s in their food, with the rise in natural/green products and organic food, that they’ve run a huge legal campaign marketing how little actual natural ingredient is in their own product.
Can you imagine Renault attempting to say their latest car isn’t a car, because it goes half as fast as the competition? Because it’s half as comfortable? Because it got less than half in the NCAP safety tests?

Whether Pringles want to admit it or not, they ARE marketed as crisps.
They’re in the crisps aisle with the crisps, and the biggest single ingredient in them is potato.
They’ve been plasto-moulded and duplicated to look like a crisp would look like if you attempted to draw one.
Nobody has Pringles AND also crisps, at a party.

That is unless they’re planning a party for me, as I hate the things.
I’m no gourmet chef, but they do sum up everything that gives processed food a bad name. They’re high-fat, low-content, overpackaged, uniformly-identical products and almost completely tasteless.
For me, they fall into the same category as Sunny Delight and Cheese Strings. It’s food made to look a certain way, then heavily advertised in attempt to make it cool.
What it tastes like or is made of, is a long way down the list of concerns. The difference between these three products though, is that Pringles’ is still considered somewhat cool.

Maybe that was their plan all along.
As a crisp, a Pringle looks horrible from all angles on paper – it’s high in fat, and low in potato. It’s a very poor man’s crisp.
Essentially it’s a well-marketed Tesco Value crisp. It’s got no potato in it and it doesn’t taste of anything.
Nobody would want sausages with 42% pork, or teabags with 58% “other ingredients”.
However, if you can convince people they’re really not a disgustingly-poor imitation of a REAL crisp, but they’re actually *anything else*, it’s suddenly less of a concern.
Maybe they’ll add 1% oats into the packet lining next and attempt to classify them as flapjacks.

If you want cheap crisps, buy own brand. If you want more expensive crisps, buy Walkers. If you want posher crisps, there’s Kettle Chips/Burts.
If you want something with 33% fat and 42% potato plus a whole load of other crap, Pringles are definitely the way forward.

#amazonfail

I was initially intending to blog about my birthday, which happened last week (I assume the cards are all still in the post), but thought I had to give my thoughts on this Amazon possibly/possibly-not censorship problem, which is being discussed at length on Twitter.

The main bulk of the argument seems to be that books about gays or lesbians, or written by gays or lesbians, are disappearing from the Amazon.com salesrank.
This means they’re very difficult (but not impossible) to find.
Certainly the average user would likely assume they no longer stocked the book, rather than wading through to find it.
It will undoubtedly harm book sales of authors.

I’m sure a lot of people will think “who cares?” (even if they choose not to voice those particular opinions.)
I mean I have no immediate plans to buy books by gays or lesbians. I’ve no immediate plans to buy any books at all, so why do I care?

I think what bothers me is that there is any form of censorship on there at all.

Amazon are currently claiming that there is some sort of “glitch” in the system, which is causing huge numbers of books by gay or lesbian authors, or about gay or lesbian characters, to be “accidentally” removed.
To be fair to Amazon, it could be the case. Although one author was told in February that his book was being removed due to “policy”, who is to say they haven’t changed policy again since this?
And there is bizarre happenings, such as paperback versions of books being removed, hardback books not (and vice versa).
Despite the ‘homophobic’ stick that people are beating Amazon with at the moment, it isn’t JUST gay/lesbian books – there are other books that are being removed, for being adult. Also, not ALL gay/lesbian books have disappeared.

Now, I don’t care about ‘categories’ of books being removed.
I care about ANY books being removed.
Think back pre-Amazon to an actual library. The first thing you would do with an English-German dictionary was look up the swear words.
Nudity was available in various forms, and there were various medical books if you really wanted the gory graphic details.
There’s very few good arguments to censor anything, unless it contains graphic sexual imagery and being sold to 8yr olds, or is illegal..etc, surely?
Gay/whatever – you can’t be removing books from the bestseller list because they contain adult themes, or some people don’t feel they’d enjoy reading them.