A friend who works in an Apple Store sent me this photo today:
You might be in that very store right now, seeing this post…
Since I moved to England in April, I have had more problems with banks than in the nearly three decades I was in France. I’m constantly astounded by the complications of opening, maintaining and accessing bank accounts in this country. I’ve come to the conclusion that all banks in the UK must suck, and people are so used to this, they simply accept it and don’t demand better service.
Granted, when I first got here, I found the service – in one bank at least – to be much better than what I got from my bank in France, but that was the human side of the service. When you need something that involves “the system,” all bets are off.
From the very beginning, it was obvious that the banking system here is overly paranoid. Simply opening a bank account was an obstacle course. Since I was coming from outside the UK, the strict (and counter-productive) money laundering rules in the country make it very difficult to even open a personal bank account, let alone a business account. If you don’t have an address in the UK, you’re considered to be a possible criminal, and the only way I could get an account here was to open an account with HSBC France, which then sent a “letter of recommendation” to HSBC in the UK.
But then I needed a business account. That was even harder. As much as one very friendly person at HSBC wanted to open one, “the system” prevented him from doing so. Since I don’t have a credit rating in the UK, and credit ratings don’t exist in France, he had to admit defeat. I fell back on another bank, NatWest, which required the same information, but seemed a bit cavalier about my proof of address: a statement from HSBC was all they needed.
NatWest has terrible customer service; I only chose them because I had to have a business account, and I couldn’t get one from any other bank. It’s hard to contact the person who manages my account; I don’t have a direct email address (as I do at HSBC), and the only phone number I have goes to a call center, and is charged a premium rate. And I had to request a debit card three times before I finally got one.
So I figured that was going to be the hardest part of the process; that things would get better after the accounts were up and running. Nope. HBSC’s internet banking is down often – both the UK and the French sites, but never both at the same time. Today, I went to the HSBC branch to see an advisor with some questions about savings accounts and interest rates. I was told by the greeter that “the system is down,” so they couldn’t access any information about my account. Since the internet banking was down yesterday, I’m beginning to wonder what their uptime is.
The worst problem was with NatWest today. Banks in the UK have very convoluted security systems. (I’m used to France, where you have an account number and a password to access online banking; nothing more.) You start by answering a half-dozen security questions, then choose “memorable words,” then you get PIN numbers; several. For my NatWest account, I have three: one for my debit card, one for a card reader (a device which generates one-time codes that I need to carry out certain online operations), and on online banking PIN. I also have an online banking password, and a couple of other passwords.
People who work in computer security know that too much security leads to lax security. When you force users to have multiple PINs and passwords, they tend to choose ones that are easy to remember. I use 1Password on my Mac and iPhone, so I can record all of these passwords, but it’s still complicated.
When I went to log into my NatWest internet banking, I got locked out. I entered the information requested (1st number of your PIN; 4th number of your PIN; 7th character of your password; etc.), but the server didn’t like it. Since I’ve logged into this site many times, I highly doubt that the mistake was on my end, but with all the different PINs and passwords, it’s possible. No matter; I got locked out. I had to re-register for internet banking, which I can’t use until I get an activation code. By mail. Which will take about ten days.
So, for now, the only way I can access my business account information is by walking 20 minutes to the branch. As it’s in the center of York, there’s no parking anywhere nearby. (In the UK, it seems that banks are always in the centers of cities this size, with no branches on the outskirts where you might be able to park. It makes you wonder who they’re really serving…)
So, today, I got locked out of my business at one bank. I found that my other bank couldn’t answer my questions because their computer system was down. Yesterday, the online banking for the same bank was down. I sense a trend here.
As I ask in the title of this article, is there a bank in this country that doesn’t suck?
I believe in newspapers, and depend on them to get news. I’m from a generation that had only newspapers – and pre-cable TV news – for daily information, and I still think they are important. I read a lot of news on the web, on many different sites, but I still depend mostly on newspaper websites to know what’s happening. (And I buy a “newspaper,” the print kind, every Sunday.)
Many newspapers have introduced paywalls, or paid access. The New York Times was the first major paper to do this, but their misguided pricing strategy (different prices depending on whether you want to read the paper on the web and a smartphone, or web and tablet) and high prices ($15 to $35 every four weeks) make it very expensive. The Washington Post is smarter; they offer the same price ($15 per four weeks) regardless of which device you want to use. Other papers have other byzantine approaches, instead of a simple one-time annual fee. The Wall Street Journal actually did this, in the early days of their paywall: they charged $50 a year for full access.
Paywalls for newspapers are inevitable, but they need to be implemented differently. Recently, I wanted to read a couple of articles on different newspaper sites. One was on the Wall Street Journal’s web site. This is a paper that I don’t read often, but I came across an article about William Faulkner’s literary estate that interested me. The Wall Street Journal has some good non-business coverage, but there’s no way that I’ll ever subscribe to it, as I’m not interested in 99% of what they publish.
The second article I wanted to read was about Shakespeare, and was on the Le Monde website. I was able to read a few paragraphs of the article, but would have needed to pay €2 to read the entire thing; in other words, more than the cost of a daily paper. (Le Monde charges €15 a month for digital access.)
The problem in both of these cases is that I’ll never become a regular reader of either of these papers. I used to live in France, but I don’t any more, and French news, which interests me, is not worth that much. And, as I said above, I don’t care enough about business news to pay for the Wall Street Journal.
So how can I read articles I want to see? Many people have discussed the idea of micro-payments, and the news industry is certainly one sector that needs them. I’d pay a nickel (or 5p) to read an article; considering the cost of a newspaper, that seems fair, especially since I’d still be seeing ads, and the newspaper would get revenue from that as well. But I wouldn’t buy, say, a credit for a paper like the Wall Street Journal, because I wouldn’t expect to use it often enough.
What we need is a broader micro-payment system for newspapers, and other print publications (I’d pay, say, a quarter, or 25p, to read a magazine article from the New Yorker). The ideal system would work with as many publications as possible, where you’d buy a credit, and be able to apply that credit to any participating publication. The idea isn’t new; it’s been floated by Walter Isaacson, The Wall Street Journal, and Google has set up such a system using Google Wallet, but I’ve never come across it in vivo.
For now, newspapers are shutting out readers, and losing money, by only offering expensive digital subscriptions, or by linking digital subscriptions to print subscriptions. It’s time for newspapers to realize that not everyone is wedded to their content, and that most people won’t pay for a specific paper, but want to read news from multiple sources. Micro-payments could change the way we consume news, and it could help keep newspapers afloat.
About nine years ago, I moved from a static-page website to a content management system (CMS), and changed from some 90s-era web pages to a more modern blog. At the time, my friend Rob Griffiths recommended Geeklog, which I used for several years, until I switched to WordPress. Today, I’ve made big changes to my blog, but you won’t see many of them.
Instead of changing platforms, I decided to change themes, buying the Enfold theme by Kriesi. While this one looks a lot like my previous theme, it’s got tons of features under the hood. It’s responsive – so its size changes according to the size of your browser window – and it’s adapted to mobile devices, such as iPads and iPhones.
It’s also more modern on the back end, but you, the reader, won’t see much of that (though you’ll see a neat effect when you scroll up and down on the page). It’s allowed me to simplify much of the content, making the sidebar less intrusive, and I’ve added a few static pages for information about me. (You can see them at the right of the header.)
Going down the line, I’ll be changing the layout a bit, using more graphical elements, and this theme allows me to create a number of different types of posts, other than just standard articles. So I hope to diversify a bit in the future.
After nine years, and 880 posts, I’m very happy to have refreshed this blog. Thanks for reading, and I hope you come by often.
When you move to a new country, there are a lot of things you need to get used to. When I moved to England in April, I didn’t have to get used to the language (though I did find many common words in my American dialect have different meanings), but I’ve been getting used to, and adapting to, a variety of cultural differences.
One of them is parking. While I don’t have a car, my girlfriend does, and I have seen first-hand that the UK has a misguided parking mentality. With a desire to limit the number of cars in city centers, car parks (that’s parking lots in US English) are expensive, and you can generally only park for a limited amount of time.
In general, you are limited to 2 hours, and in York you pay £2.30 per hour (or £2.10 if you are a resident of York). This high cost, and two-hour limit, make it impossible to do much shopping in the city, as you simply won’t have time to get from the car park to more than a couple of stores and back to your car. You can’t even easily go into town for a meal. If you need to walk, say, ten minutes to a restaurant, you simply can’t have a leisurely lunch. There have been situations in some other cities when, during a meal, my girlfriend had to leave a restaurant to move the car. Because not only are you limited to two hours, but you cannot renew your parking in the same car park.
It’s also hard for people going to work who don’t have a direct link by bus or train from their homes. Employer car parks are rare, so employees spend a lot of time worrying about where they can park, when they have to move their cars or top up the meters, whether they have change, and so on. If a meeting runs over, you risk getting a ticket. And if you have to go to a meeting in a location other than your work, you spend time hunting for parking, and worrying about getting a ticket there.
(It’s worth noting that, in York, there is hardly any paid parking on the street. You are only allowed to park on most streets near the city center if you have a resident’s permit.)
Suddenly, this issue is getting a lot of attention. The Guardian writes today: Councils raking in large surpluses from parking charges. (Councils are local governments.) A report shows that for the year 2011-2012 (the British tax year is not a calendar year, but runs from April 6 to April 5), there was a £565 million surplus for councils from parking fees. This takes into account meter fees and operating costs, as well as parking tickets, which are usurious: you get hit for £50 or £70 if you are over your time in York, but there is a 50% discount for prompt payment.
Businesses in city centers are suffering across the UK, and parking is certainly one reason why. While cities like York have park and ride schemes (you can park in a car park on the outskirts of the city and take a bus into town), these aren’t practical for all. The busses don’t go to many locations in the center of the city – in fact, York is hell for public transportation – and if you’re shopping, it may not be easy to lug around what you buy. For this reason, it’s likely that few people go into the center of York to buy more than a few things, and instead go to the shopping centers on the outskirts of the city where parking is, of course, free. (When I bought a TV from Richer Sounds in the center of York, there was no way I could lug it to my flat, and I had to pay for delivery.)
A new plan may be implemented to allow drivers to park on double yellow lines for 15 minutes in order to “save high streets.” (The high street is a term for the city center where most stores are located, and double yellow lines indicate places where it is illegal to park.) Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, said:
The High Street is in danger of shrinking or dying off, and over-aggressive parking enforcement is part of the reason why. If people are worried about paying a fortune in parking fines, it will make them more likely to do their shop online or go to out of town shopping centres. For too long parking has been a revenue raiser. It’s time to end that.
The Financial Times recently said that British high streets are forecast to lose another 5,000 shops in the next five years, and parking problems certainly contribute to this.
But it gets worse. Not only do you pay for parking in city centers, but you pay for parking if you go to a hospital. Yes, parking at hospitals is not free, so if you go for an appointment as an outpatient, or to visit friends or relatives, you get hit for high parking costs. This totals £160 million a year in England, according to the Daily Mail (Scotland and Wales outlawed this in 2009).
Looking for things to do during a trip to London next weekend, I spotted this wonderful photo of Russell Square:
It’s hard to tell how high the plane is, but I’m sure someone could work it out, calculating its length compared to the length of a given city block. But it doesn’t look very high.
Since my move to England, I’ve had far too many problems with my mobile phone service. It started when I switch to EE (Everything Everywhere) and found that my iPhone was bleeding data. This resolved eventually, though EE didn’t help me very much.
The day I bought my mobile phone contract, I asked about temporary 3G access for my Mac. When I moved from a temporary apartment to a permanent one, I needed to have internet access while I waited for my broadband to be activated. The salesperson recommended that I buy a T-Mobile USB stick with 3 GB data, good for three months. He said it was a current offer, and might not last long, so I should buy it right away. I asked if it was compatible with OS X, and he said it was. So I spent £30 for the package.
Turns out, he was wrong. I tried to set it up a couple of days ago, and it froze my Mac often, as well as disrupting Bluetooth (my trackpad and keyboard are wireless). So I removed it, and went to the EE store to ask for a refund. To my surprise, I was pretty much laughed out of the store. Since it was more than 14 days after I bought it – even though it doesn’t work – the response in the store was, essentially, “too bad for you.”
Contacting EE, then T-Mobile customer support, they confirmed that, even though the device doesn’t work as I was told, there’s no way I can get a refund. So that’s £30 lost for a piece of crap that doesn’t work. I don’t know if I should fault the salesperson; he might simply have assumed that it would work with OS X correctly. The box has no compatibility information, but the T-Mobile website says it’s compatible with 10.7; that is, the version of OS X that is two years old. T-Mobile can’t be bothered getting the software updated to make it work.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve found that mobile phone companies and ISPs generally lie about their services here: about bandwidth, pricing, so-called “unlimited” data or call packages and more. It seems that consumers have very little power in this country; or rather that the telecom companies act with impunity saying pretty much what they want with no control. I’m disappointed, and miss the relative simplicity (and lower prices) that I was accustomed to in France. In all my years using the internet and mobile phones in France, I never had as many problems as I have had here in less than two months.
Oh, and the broadband? It was supposed to be set up by June 3; it’s now the 4th, and it’s not on yet…
Update: A Twitter follower pointed out that the Sale of Goods Act says that I should be entitled to a refund. I’ll go back to the shop when I get some time and bring this up. But I don’t feel that I should have to waste this much time because of deceptive sales practices. I’m really surprised that EE/T-Mobile care so little about their customers. These problems have just made me want to go elsewhere.