Lying cheating swindling scum of the day

American Express, my lovely credit card handlers, make a big deal of their "(upto) 5% back on all purchases!" card. Of course, they are lying. But the extent to which they are lying has only just become apparent. The way the rebate works is as follows:

0.5% base rebate on all purchases
1.5% rebate for certain "everyday" purchases (although it's never made clear what these purchases are).

These rebates are doubled once you have spent $6000 in a year, although this counter resets every year.

OK, so on the basis of this you could, just about, argue that the rebate is 3% if you only buy "everyday" items and spend a lot more than $6000 in a year on them. Hard to see how anyone could consume, say, $60,000 dollars worth of toilet roll and milk, but there you go.

So where is the other 2%? Well, it works as follows. If the account carries a balance in a month, then you get the extra 2% rebate. Great! What does it mean to carry a balance? It means that you get charged a "finance charge". And here's the dirtiest trick of all: you get charged a finance charge not on the difference between the balance and what you paid, but you get charged the finance charge on the full amount. And what's this finance charge? It's currently about 12%APR, or 1% per month (roughly).

So, despite the claims, it's impossible to get the full 5% figure. Because, although you might carry a balance to get the 2% extra, you end up paying 1% of it back in finance charges. This is pretty darn sneaky, and I'm betting that the boys in the Amex office felt pretty pleased with themselves when they came up with this scam scheme.

Of course, no one actually tells you this. I just spent 15 minutes on the phone with a Customer Service Rep trying to get an explanation of how the finance charge is calculated. She didn't know of course, and had to find out herself. Then she added that this information was in the cardholder agreement. I'm sure it is; I'm equally sure that no one ever reads the small print in sufficient detail to work out this stuff.

So, congratulations American Express. You are my Lying cheating swindling scum of the day. Tomorrow: Aerolineas Argentina (agan).


Totally lame...

Totally lame rebranding of otherwise decent film in order not to confuse an international audience, batman!

Harold and Kumar...



Another question for all the technerds out there. I'm thinking about replacing my monitor with one of those LSD Fat Panels that seem to be all the rage at the moment. Those skilled in mathematics will deduce that this will leave me with one (1) CRT monitor and no input for it.

So, my question is, what useful and or interesting things can one do with a CRT monitor with 15pin VGA-style input? The best I can come up with, apart from keeping it as a spare, or attaching it to a laptop, is that one could purchase an appropriate convertor to accept standard video input, and plug in one of the dozen or so DVD players currently lying about the place. I'm just wondering if there is something more fun to do -- are there any other cheap devices that spit out a VGA signal and do interesting things with it? I suspect the answer is no.

Any references to dokbot will probably be ignored.

I notice that someone recently reached here using the google search string "dead horse". Now that I've mentioned it, I supposed I'm blogging a dead horse.

NB. Yes, I know I've done that one before. But that was a year ago, so consider it the equivalent of a repeat on TV.


What's Wrong?

To add to the technical posts, here's a summary of my calls to tech support over the past week, with reason for calling, and solution.

  • Computer could not access the network Problem: DHCP server refused to talk to the machine until its MAC address was added to the list of approved machines.

  • Could not log on to the NT domain Problem: machine was not set up to log on to the NT domain. Had to set up the machine identity by typing in some magic words to various configuration settings.

  • Could not access Exchange Server Problem: machine had not been set up to check the correct domains for the exchange server. More magic words needed to be entered into some secret options.

  • Could not log on to the training website to sit through compulsory employee briefing in order to get security badge. Problem: needed to call training people and get them to add my user id to their list of approved ids.

Why am I whinging about this? Well, because I was handed this machine on Monday, and essentially left to get on with it. There were no instructions, and no guidance. Why give out machines but not tell people that to get on the IP network you'll need to register the MAC? Why not register the MACs of the new machines before handing them out? And why not set them up properly for use? Why do I get told to go to the training website to take a tedious course without the website being informed of my userid? In other words, this is exactly the shambles that I encounter every time I join a new organization: I have to spend chasing round, trying to figure out why I haven't been told certain things, or getting something set up. It's enough to give one a persecution complex, that the instruction manual is always missing. And the solution is always the same: do ennough work to get things working in such a way that you never need to interact with the people who omitted to give you the information that you need (hence: installing cygwin, setting MS Exchange to forward all emails to an account where I can use pine, etc.).

Follow Up

You could guess that it would take technical post to bring the geeks out of the woodwork. Although, I'm not sure if geeks live in woodwork. Seems a bit too natural; they probably live in decomissioned 386s, or something.

Suggestions have included:

Using Firefox/Opera/Avant instead of IE. Firstly, Avant is not a real browser: it's more like a bunch of widgets wrapped around an instance of IE. The tabbing, blocking and mouse gestures do make it quite usable, but there's still the nagging doubt that its black, pulsing heart is microsoft. Also, since it's based on IE, you have to go through the whole bs of switching off the notifications that sending a form sends data over the internet, going to a https address is moderately more secure than http, etc. Somehow I can't bring myself to like Firefox: the last time I tried it, the rendering felt slow and somehow flaky. Opera is currently my browser of choice, but making the browsing experience too convenient distracts from work, and you get nothing done (I should make it clear: I'm configuring my machine for work).

Dropping Putty and sticking with ssh through cygwin. For some reason I found the connections I got through cygwin were more flaky than through putty, and would drop or break after a few hours. Maybe things are OK now, but there's something deeply reassuring about the gray on white of Putty. Plus, I once juggled with Simon Tatham (er, I mean... oh, work it out for yourself), and I feel a certain loyalty to the chap.

VideoLan Client: again, not really something I need for work. I need Winamp/Real so I have something to listen to while I'm working, but I don't think I can really justify watching movies. And, at least in my fairly wide range experience of codecs and the like, I still haven't found anything that MPC can't handle, and I love the way that it integrates .rm and .mov and everything else into one stripped down interface.

On the other hand, there were a couple of things I omitted to mention, most of which are more obscure and mostly to do with PDF/EPS formats.

PDF995 is rather intrustive with its advertising, but it gets the job done, and I'm too cheap to shell out for distiller.

Ghostview/Ghostscript is also a little annoying since you have to ack the licence every time it loads, but I seem to have got used to this so I don't notice it any more.

AdobeAcrobat -- the machine came with version 6 installed, but it's pretty slow to load up, so I'm thinking of downgrading to an older version, which should be a bit faster to start. Meantime, can anyone remember what the utility is that makes acrobat start faster? Yes, I know GV can open PDF now, but it doesn't render the text as nicely.

wmf2eps -- I haven't installed this yet, since it's always a pain to get this to install properly... you need to set up a ps printer driver, then redirect the output... but in my line of business being able to get decent .eps output from windows applications is a lifesaver, and opens up a lot more possibilities for producing figures. I suppose one way is to print the relevant figures to pdf, and then crop down to the desired size (requires distiller, though), or try to do something horrific involving gstools and pdftops and pstoeps, but the wmf2eps solution is somewhat nicer. I would go down the route of doing everything in pdf and using pdflatex exclusively, but my coauthors do seem to be rather stuck in the 1990s when it comes to latex usage.

There's probably more, but I suppose I'll remember these as time makes their necessity apparent. At the moment, I find it more pressing to find some way to connect to a printer.


How to make a Windows Machine into something usable

Takes some effort but:

-- Install Cygwin, X, putty
-- Install winamp, media player classic
-- Grudgingly install the oldest version of Real Player for radio streams
-- Set up windows to be less annoying: reconfigure IE, install google toolbar, switch off as many of the irritating features as possible, set up Explorer to show details view in all modes, don't hide file extensions
-- Delete anything with Outlook in the name
-- get rid of as much autoinstalled cruft from startup, taskbar, quicklaunch
-- tidy up start menu, try to remove as much useless crap as possible, switch off the annoying 'hide unused items feature'.

Make a cup of tea, and relax.

With time, a well-tamed Windows system can actually become quite usable.


Leave, Get Out!

A quick reminiscence from the glory days of the MTV video music awards (from last month). At some point in proceesings there was a fawning tribute to Jay-Z who is, apparently, "retiring" from the rap world after his mega-successful year including "I've got 99 problems but the bitch ain't one". A moving video tribute recording his many achievements and career highlights. There was probably even a special award presentation from, I don't know, Puff Diddy and the Diddymen, or something. And then, as the applause was at its peak, rang out the sound of "Leave! Get out! It's the end of you and me" from teen singing child Jo-jo. Admittedly, this was just to herald the entry of said sprog to present some other award or other, but was I only the person to think that it also functioned quite effectively as an instruction to get on with it?

Political Humour

I thought of "Re-elect Gore in 2004" in the bath this morning, and was glad to see when I checked online that someone else had already gone to the trouble of setting up the obligatory CafePress webshop. Hurry, before stocks run out.


Text Adventure


You cannot enter building, you do not have the ID Card


You cannot get the ID Card, you must present evidence of completing the safety course to security first.


To take the safety course, you must go to a website and watch the video there.


You cannot log on to the website without an NT account.


To get the NT account, you must go to the HR website and set up a ticket to have the account set up.


Access to the HR website is limited to trusted IP addresses within the main building. Try using a computer within the main building to access this website.


You cannot enter building, you do not have the ID Card.



Sexy Darko

I watched the cult hit Donnie Darko hit at the weekend. It's entertaining, although the more you think about it, the more it seems to resemble an extended episode of Quantum Leap. The lengths to which various people on the internet have gone to deciphering every last detail, helped to a certain extent by the writer/director leaving large clues around about the fairly mundane explanation he has in mind ("Living Receiver", "Manipulated Living", "artifact" and "tangent universe", FFS).

But anyway. A few weeks ago I saw 'Sexy Beast', which was released around the same time, and I came up with a list of ways in which the two films are related. Contains some spoilers for both films, I expect.

  • The intrusion of a large physical object as a herald of the disruption to come (the engine in DD, the boulder in SB)

  • A sinister character who repeatedly goads the protagonist into a particular action, until he is killed by the protagonist.

  • The main character's gradual acceptance that he must carry out an unpleasant task, which he does ultimately motivated by love for another.

  • Most strikingly (and, hence, obviously, and not so interestingly): a guy in a sinister bunny suit as a motif throughout the film.


Fatboy Blues

Just heard the new FBS track, and I can't say I'm overly impressed. Firstly, the title: Slash Dot Dash Dot Com? Hello? Affecting mild befuddlement at the naming conventions of the internet is like, so 1996. [Meanwhile the construction "X is, like, so, {recent date or time}" is like, so, 1999]. And the song -- apologies if this is my emperor's new clothes moment -- is just a single sample looped over and over on top of some equally repetitive riffs. Perhaps it will grow on me -- it is repeating over and over in my head as I write. But if you want some much better examples of his recent work, check out the amazing remix of "Stand Up" by Ludacris. That really rocks.

Non-sequiteur of the day: batik is a dying art.


A very 'hitchhikers' day

I set off to go to work today about 10 -- but it was raining so hard that even if I took public transport instead of biking, I would have been drenched. So I cancelled, and worked from home for a while. Then, after about an hour, the rain seemed to have stopped, so I went out, got on my bike -- and it started raining hard again. So I stopped, put up my umbrella, and wheeled the bike back to my door. The rain seemed to have stopped again, so I thought, oh well, maybe I can go on my bike anyway. At which point it started raining again.

In other words, every time I thought I would go to work, it started raining really hard, but as soon as I gave up on the idea, it stopped. Perhaps it is trying to tell me something. Well, screw it, I think I'll give public transport another try.

[Edit: blogger wouldn't pubish this for some reason, so I'm trying again. Just to add that although I tried again, it started chucking it down once more, so I worked from home the whole day again.]

In (un)related news, the SODA results are out, and I got one long in and one short rejected. Not bad, given that the acceptance rate is 1 in 3.5. No news yet on how the people who submitted 5, 10 or 20 papers fared, though. ICDE due after the weekend. If this means nothing to, keep thinking about the clever trick using seal blubber


Death To Telemarketers

This is the peril of moving house: your phone number changes. And so, one is cursed with telemarketers who insist on calling with witless requests. One of the good things here (well, I suppose in some countries it is not necessary, but still), is the existence of the federal "Do Not Call" list, which allows one to register a number on a list so that these people will stop bothering me while I'm trying to work.

The only drawback, and it's a big drawback, is that it takes up to three months for this list to get updated with the new data. And so, I am cursed to deal with this irritant for another two months. (I'm not an idiot; as soon as I got my new number from the phone company I went straight to the FCC website to register my number, which was about three weeks before I actually got phone service).

So, in the meantime, you just have to deal with them one by one. Each company is supposed to have a 'do not call' list of their own, which they must also respect. Here is my most recent exchange:

"Hi, I'm calling from the New York Daily News and Post, and we have a special on for home delivery for only 99cents..."
"No, I'm not interested. Please add my number to your do not call list."
"But it's a really good offer..."

[This I found particularly cheeky. I don't know if this kind of cajoling is in their script, but it's pretty damn obnoxious either way. I know these people calling are on commission, so it's in everyone's interests if we get this exchange over with as soon as possible, and they move on to irritating some more gullible fool]

"No! I asked you to add my number to your do not call list. Thank you---goodbye!".

I don't remember ever having this bother much in Britain, but maybe I got lucky. No idea how they got my number so quickly, unless it was someone else's number in the past who didn't register it.


No Comment

The more tedious amongst you (that is, those of you who read this blog directly, rather than via some complex RSS syndication via Neptune or whatever), will notice that I've switched on the comments feature on blogger.

The circumstances are thus: last night my tame Ivy League Professor came by, and muttered something about comments. Over the course of a meal he strongarmed me into switching them on. Very well; consider this an experiment. I can take this opportunity to remind you of the terms and conditions of reading this non-blog and of commiting its contents to memory (electronic or biological). These are, that this communication is strictly one way. That is, I speak and you listen. Therefore, anyone who posts a comment is in strict violation of these terms and conditions, and will be banned immediately, with no appeals process.

Now that I've made that clear, carry on as you were.

At the risk of repeating myself...

... here's the result of a backlog of lollypop stick jokes from the last month or so. Actually, there's only two, possibly there were more but they may have been lost in the move (or in Andover).

Q: What did the Hamburgers name their daughter?
A: Patty. [*]

[*] Note for readers not familiar with north-American customs: a "Hamburger patty" is the local name for the uncooked meat of a hamburger, shaped into the usual circular shape. This is to distingusih it from the Hamburger Bun.

We will swiftly ignore the fact of the sheer stupidity of the idea of Hamburger meat being able to move, converse, and reproduce in some anthropomorphic manner.


Q: What has wheels and a trunk but no engine?
A: An elephant on roller blades [+]

[+] Secondary note for readers not familiar with north-America customs: a "trunk" is local slang for the boot of a car. Confusingly, "boot" here is used to mean an item of sturdy footwear, or a particularly heavy shoe. A "shoe" is used to refer to the flat piece of material in a car which engages with the wheel bearing in order to effect breaking action, and is usually located under the trunk. Etc.

Additional note: "roller blades" may be thought of as being roughly equivalent to a very fancy pair of roller skates, to the extent that someone over the age of 11 would not feel stupid wearing them.

Lastly, an "elephant" refers to a grey, furry creature, about midway between the size of a skunk and a groundhog. They are not considered dangerous, but should not be provoked. Anyone who sees one is advised to contact their local police department immediately.


Nothing will hold us back

I'm listening to GWB spout his trite drivel. It's thoroughly nauseating. I object to being lied to consistently. But that is what's happening. Half the platform appears to be that GWB was in office on September 11 2001, and that this was something that no one else could have done.

But honestly, what can you expect from a party that styles itself "The GOP" -- that's "the Grand Old Party". It's hard to imagine Labour or the Tories applyingsuch a self-aggrandising nickname on itself. I keep searching for an equivalently smug and obnoxious sobriquet for a UK party, and I keep coming up short.

It's completely inexplicable how he's riding so high in the polls, but then it was completely inexplicable that he got any votes to begin with. There are times when I dislike Tony Blair, but this is as nothing compared to the disdain in which I hold GWB. Perhaps if I had been more aware of her effect I could have felt the same about Thatcher, but as it is, GWB is the only premiere that I have actively hated.

I wonder if I am the only person who, when the convention breaks out into their chants of "Four more years! Four more years!" I am reminded of the Neuremberg rallies. Maybe that happens with every convention like this.


Answers to readers' queries

Another batch of idiotic search queries have come in, so here's another rapid response to them:

"fact fans" ntk sounds about right, if you ask me.

clemence posey That's a deliberate misspelling. It should be poesy.

Google: dervla kerwin
MSN Search: Dervla Kerwin
My, but she's a popular misspelling

"all you beyonces" -- are belong to us?

SuprNova -.net we are scammers I think you are probably looking for suprnova.ORG

im looking for a company that sells dics and the products that go with the dics Right, a question posed in clear English. Unfortunately, I still have no idea what you are talking about. Try here.

"jenny powell" slang towel, apparently. Not sure why, on a number of levels.
bloggs with nudity Well, I'm naked while I'm writing this, does that count?