Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

Long-time readers will know that I am not averse to contacting companies to complain about bad service that I receive. This isn’t a particularly fulfilling hobby as you very rarely get any kind of satisfaction. But recently it’s becoming even less satisfying than before. I’ve noticed that email conversations with customer service reps are becoming more and more drawn out as many of them seem less and less capable of understanding the issues that I am raising. It can often take a couple of rounds of email before they are clear what I’m talking about. And I’m pretty sure it’s not me describing things badly.

Here’s an example.

Last week the BBC showed an abbreviated version of Leonard Cohen: Live in London. I missed it as it was first broadcast, so over the weekend I tried to catch up with it on iPlayer. We have Virgin Media, so we can watch iPlayer content through our V+ box. I found the programme and started to watch. I didn’t last long though as the aspect ratio of the programme was wrong. The programme had been filmed in 4:3, but the iPlayer has stretched it to 16:9[1]. This meant that everyone everyone appeared fatter than they should be. I know that many people are used to watching television like this, but to me it renders a programme unwatchable.

I wrote to the iPlayer support team explaining the problem. Here’s what I wrote:

The version of “Leonard Cohen – Live in London” which is currently available on iPlayer on Virgin Media is in the wrong aspect ratio. It appears to be a 4:3 broadcast which has been stretched to 16:9. Everyone therefore seems to be far too fat and the programme is unwatchable.

I think that’s clear.

This morning I got a reply from them. Here’s what they said:

I understand you’re unhappy with the size of ‘Leonard Cohen’ on BBC iPlayer.

The bit rate varies per programme and is dependent on the amount of changes per video frame. For example, a programme such as ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Leonard Cohen’ will be at a higher rate than a Current Affairs programme (where a presenter is fairly static in the frame).

Considering the above information:

The average file size for a 30 minute streamed programme is around 110MB. The average file size for a 1 hour streamed programme is around 215MB.

I appreciate you may feel differently on this matter and I’d like to assure you that I have registered your comments on our log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for BBC iPlayer and commissioning executives within the BBC, and their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Nothing in there at all about aspect ratios. They seem to have assumed that I’m talking about the size of downloaded programmes. Which is strange as I specifically mentioned the Virgin Media version of iPlayer which doesn’t support programme downloads.

I can see three explanations:

  1. The person genuinely misunderstood what I was asking about and answered the question to the best of her ability. In which case she needs better training in the products that she is supposed to be supporting.
  2. The person didn’t read my mail carefully and just sent a reply that looked like it might address the issues I was talking about. In which case she needs to read email more closely. Perhaps the iPlayer support team needs more people so they have time to read messages and write replies carefully.
  3. No-one read my email and some automated system sent a canned reply based on some (obviously flawed) keyword matching.

I know I shouldn’t waste my time, but I’ve had another go at explaining exactly what the problem is and why this reply didn’t address any of my issues. Let’s wait and see what happens.

But it shouldn’t be like this. Speaking to customer service shouldn’t be like banging your head against a brick wall. People should know the products they are supporting and they should want to give the best service they can. It’s becoming far too common that customer service replies appear to be dashed off as quickly as possible in the hope that no-one will actually bother to read the reply. Either the support team don’t have the training to properly support their products or they are overworked and don’t have time to do a proper job.

Either way, it’s all very frustrating.

The BBC showed the Leonard Cohen concert again over the weekend. I recorded it on my V+ box. It was broadcast in the correct aspect ratio. I enjoyed watching it very much.

[1] I like to call this “Dixonsvision” in memory of the sadly-missed shop which used to insist on demonstrating all of its widescreen TVs this way.

Matt Smith: The Eleventh Doctor

It’s been a day since the announcement, so I thought I’d bore you all with my thoughts on Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.

When I first heard the news I though “who?”, like most people, but then I looked him up on the web and realised that I knew who he was.

Yes, he’s young. But I don’t see that as an insurmountable obstacle. His work in things like “Party Animals” and the Sally Lockhart dramas prove that he’s a capable young actor. And I trust Stephen Moffat to do the right thing. So, all in all, my response is “This could work. Let’s wait and see”.

One of the interesting things about this announcement is how far in advance it has been made. I know it made sense for David Tennant to announce that he was leaving the show along with Russell T Davies, but did we really need to know who was going to be the next Doctor a year before he appears on screen? And that appearance is likely to be no more than thirty seconds of blinking and gurning. It’s likely to be fifteen months before we really see how he works in the part.

I can remember all of the new Doctor announcements back to Tom Baker. And I’m sure we’ve never known who the new Doctor is so far in advance. Usually, I think it’s more like four or six months. David Tennant was announced in April 2005 and appeared on screen briefly in July. His first full episode was in December – eight months after the announcement. With Smith, we’ll have to wait almost twice as long. I realise that the production team wanted to put and end to all of the speculation and that they really didn’t want to keep the secret once filming starts later this year, but surely building up the anticipation for this long has a high chance of backfiring on them. It also has a chance of rather overshadowing David Tennant’s last appearances as the Doctor – which would be a shame.

Of course, this is pretty much all guesswork. Anything could happen in the next fifteen months. As I said above – the best approach is just to wait and see and to not engage in pointless speculation.

The BBC’s Merlin

I’ve been a fan of Arthurian legend for as long as I remember. It’s one of my favourite stories. I’ve read and seen countless versions over the last thirty or forty years.

But I don’t think I’ve ever come across a version as terrible as the BBC’s new series Merlin which started last night. It was so bad that I’m shuddering as I think about it now. I have two major problems with it.

The first is that it’s made in the same way as Robin the Hoodie – by which I mean that the BBC have managed to make another historical drama with absolutely no sense of history. The characters talk and act like they’ve just stepped out of the twenty-first century. Oh, there’s some small effort to create sets and costumes that look historical in some vaguely Medieval fashion, but something about it makes it all completely unconvincing.

Secondly, and to my mind far more disappointingly, they’ve changed the story so much that it is only recognisable because of the characters’ names. Now, of course I realise that the story is only a legend and that there is no “true version” to measure it against, but there are certain key points that a retelling needs to include and Merlin seems determined to remove them all. Here are a few of the obvious ones that I noticed.

  • Uther Pendragon is king of Camelot. In any versions of the story that mention Camelot, it is created by Arthur once he has become king.
  • Arthur is living with Uther. Arthur is, of course, Uther’s son. But Uther tricked Arthur’s mother, Igraine, into sleeping with him (with Merlin‘s help) and on the day Arthur was born, Merlin took him to live with Sir Ector and his son Kay. Arthur didn’t find out who his father was until he became king.
  • As suggested by the previous point, Merlin is far older than Arthur. He’s older than Uther. But this programme has Merlin and Arthur as boys together. In fact Merlin seems younger than Arthur.
  • Merlin’s teacher was called Blaise, not Gaius.
  • They have Guinevere as a servant. She’s the daughter of King Leodegrance, not a servant. Oh, and she seems to be flirting with Merlin. Which is just wrong.
  • There is no talking dragon in Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth has a story about two dragon’s fighting in a lake which Merlin finds when he is a young boy. But they don’t talk and he doesn’t learn anything from them.

There are probably more differences (I fully expect Morgana to do something completely out of character at some point – we don’t know yet if she’s still Arthur’s half-sister) but those are the worst offenders that I noticed whilst watching it.

It’s so different from the usual version of the story that it seems completely pointless to link it with the Arthurian story at all. If they just changed the names then it could be the story of any young wizard coming to terms with his powers. It would still be badly-written, derivative rubbish, but at least it wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of people who know the story.

Actually, I think that’s what I object to the most. If this is at all successful, then there will be a generation of children for whom this will be the first version of the story that they encounter. And for them it will become the definitive version. Which is a real shame when they could be getting far better versions of the story from Malory, TH White or even John Boorman.

I recently read Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. That was a great retelling of the story. It introduced many interesting new ideas whilst staying true to the spirit of the legend. If the BBC wanted to make an Arthurian drama, then they should have adapted that. It would have been far better than the rubbish we’ve been given.

What I Did At Mashed 08

I was at Mashed 08 at Alexandra Palace yesterday. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go back today, but I’ve made some progress on my project from home.

It was a successful day all in all though. Here’s what I did.

  • Watched Jonathan Tweed talk about the BBC /programmes api. If I hadn’t already had an idea of what I was going to do I would have been very tempted to play with this. A year ago, I was working for the BBC on one of the projects that underlies /programmes, so it’s great to see it being given a public airing.
  • Watched the Guardian’s Damian Carrington talk about what the Guardian’s enviroment web team are hoping to inspire people into doing. Well, to be honest, I sat in his talk whilst getting my wireless connection working. Sorry Damian.
  • Met up with a fellow Perl hacker. Last year the venue was full of Perl hackers. Shame there were so few there this year. I suspect many of the cooler kids were at Interesting instead – note to organisers: having two events like this on the same day is all a bit silly.
  • Had an interesting conversation with someone from the BBC who is working on the next version of the Radio iPlayer. It sounds as though following the release of this new version, my BBC streams page will be redundant. Alternatively, it might be easy to make it far more useful. And I’ll be able to retire all the grungy old HTML scraping code.
  • Had an interesting conversation with the O’Reilly UK people. Might be some announcements coming out of that in a couple of months. Oh, and I might have opened myself up to lots of hassle about writing another book.
  • Watched Doctor Who on a huge screen. In the wrong aspect ratio. Honestly, you’d thing that if there was one organisation who understood aspect ratios then it would be the BBC.

And despite socking up most of the day doing all of those things, I also managed to get stuff done on my own project and the first draft of Political Web is now online. It doesn’t do most of the things that I want it to do yet, but it’s a good start. Have a play and let me know how it goes.

Update: I should, of course, reiterate that what I’ve done so far on Political Web is largely just to repackage stuff that’s available from from They Work For You. I have plans to add other stuff soon(ish).

Update: Having just got to a Windows PC for the first time for days and tried using Political Web in IE6, I see that it doesn’t work for some reason. Probably some Javascript glitch. I’ll try to look at it in more detail later on. But in the meantime, use Firefox – you know it makes sense.

Political Web Sites

It’s the BBC Mashed hack session this coming weekend, so I suppose lots of people are trying to think of a project to work on. I have an idea that involves UK political web sites.

I expect that most MPs have a web site. A far smaller number of them have a blog. Some of them use blog-like software to publish news and other similar web feeds. Part of what I want to do is to build a directory of those URLs. I can’t see any way to do this other than trying to track down each of the 646 MPs on the web and poking around on their sites to find all of the interesting URLs. I’m hoping I can get some help with that.

But there are also sites about MPs that are run by other organisations. These ones are easier to track down. For example, They Work For You has a page for every MP. The page for my MP is

So that looks easy enough. You just use the name of the MP and the name of the constituency. Public Whip has a similar mechanism. My MP’s page on Public Whip is

Then there are the news organisations. The BBC has a page about my MP. It’s at

In this case there’s a magic number (35) and in order to construct these URLs for other MPs, you’d need to map these numbers to MPs (or constituencies).

The Guardian has two pages. One for the MP and one for the constituency.,,-3146,00.html,,-696,00.html

Again, each of those contain magic numbers that you’d need to get a complete list of. And I assume (or, at least, hope) that these pages will one day be given shiny new URLs like other parts of the Guardian site.

It’s this second part of the problem that I want to concentrate on first. Building URLs to external sites pro grammatically. And this is where you, gentle reader, can help me. I have two questions that you might be able to answer.

  1. I’m sure I’m missing some external sites. To be honest, I haven’t really looked very hard yet. I’d be surprised if some of the other national papers didn’t have similar pages to the Guardian. Do you know of any other good sites that have pages dedicated to each individual MP or constituency?
  2. Do any of you work for organisations that publish these pages? If so, is there any chance that you could sent me lists of the “magic numbers” that appear in your URLs? What I’d need is something like a CSV file (or whatever format is convenient for you) that maps your magic numbers to a recognisable name for an MP or a constituency. I can then map your data to my list of MPs. I know it’s a bit cheeky, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

There’s still one part of the puzzle missing. A surprising number of people don’t know the name their MP or even their constituency. So an important part of the system will be a search engine. At the very least, I’ll need the ability to convert a postcode to a constituency (or MP). All of the sites I mentioned above do this. It would be great if one of them made the look-up available as a web service.

Of, and one last thing. If you’re going to Mashed and don’t have a project to work on and this sounds interesting to you, then please get in touch. Feel free to link up with me on the backnetwork site.

Update: If you listen, you can probably hear the sounds of my kicking myself very hard because I forgot to check the They Work For You API before writing this entry. It does a lot of the kinds of things that I will need. There’s even a Perl module – which makes me very happy.

Lowering My Blood Pressure

I like a bit of controversy in my RSS feeds. I subscribe to feeds from the Daily Mail and the Sun – papers that are guaranteed to get my blood boiling. An occasional increase in blood pressure can be most invigorating.

But I’ve just removed an RSS feed from my list of subscriptions because there was a distinct danger that it was going to give me a heart attack. I’ve been reading Biased BBC for about a year (I’m pretty sure that it was Martin who first pointed it out to me).

The premise of the site is pretty uncontentious. They say that the BBC is staffed exclusively by left-leaning Londoners and that the opinions in its output don’t reflect the views of the general population of the country. Having worked at the BBC a couple of times, I have to agree that there is a large number of people working there with left of centre political views. However, I’ve only ever worked in the IT group so I can’t say whether the same applies to the editorial groups.

And whilst anyone can point to occasional lapses in editorial balance by any media outlet, accusations of an organised attempt to brainwash the country fall far wide of the mark. I pretty sure that most of the contributors to Biased BBC would continue accuse the BBC of bias unless it was broadcasting exactly their opinion all the time. They seem to be confusing “bias” with “failure to agree with me completely”.

But anyway, I found it an interesting read. Occasionally they’d point out some real example of BBC bias. More often it was an amusing way to read about a completely different view of the world.

All that changed a few months ago when Biased BBC introduced a new contributor called David Vance. Vance doesn’t see the BBC as a generally reasonable organisation which exhibits occasional lapses of judgement. He sees it as a tool of the devil and find examples of left wing (oh, and pro-islamic) bias in everything that the BBC broadcasts. He is posting several entries a day, each one a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about the BBC. It’s boring and depressing.

So that’s why I’ve decided to stop reading the site. It went beyond parody and just became a waste of time. The site takes comments, so I’ve been tempted to get involved in discussions there occasionally, but looking at the opinions held by most of the contributors there, it would be a waste of everyone’s time. They aren’t going to listen to reason. They are happy to sit there with the veins in their neck throbbing away bashing out conclusive proof that everyone in the BBC is a potential terrorist who wants to implement shariah law in the UK.

It used to be good fun, but now it’s just dull.

Can someone please let me know when it goes back to how it used to be?

Russell T Davies to Leave Doctor Who

We all knew it would happen sometime (not even John Nathan-Turner went on forever) and there have been rumours flying around for a while, but yesterday the BBC confirmed that Russell T Davies will be stepping down as executive producer of Doctor Who. He’ll stay on for the four specials to be broadcast next year but will be gone before the show’s fifth series in 2010.

I don’t think anyone can deny that Davies’ run of the show has been phenomenally successful. Ok, actually, I know that people can (and do) deny that, but a moment’s reflection will hopefully demonstrate the stupidity of that opinion. Over the last four years Davies has resurrected Doctor Who and turned it into one of the most successful BBC programmes of all time. People have warm nostalgic feelings for the “old Doctor Who”, but it was never anywhere near as successful as this new version. Of course there have been some dodgy new episodes (quite often in the episodes written by Davies himself) but no-one can doubt that it was largely Davies’ vision of the show that has made it the success it is today.

I’m not as in tune with Doctor Who fandom as I used to be. But from what I’ve seen there seem to be two main objections to Davies tenure on the programme:

1/ It’s not as good as it used to be

This is, to put it plainly, bollocks. Certainly the old series produced more than it’s fair share of top quality TV, but if you actually sit down and watch the old series (and I mean a whole series, not just your favourite stories) you’ll quickly realise that there was a lot of rubbish there too.

A related complaint is that too much has changed – from the format of the shows (largely single 45 minute episodes as opposed to four 25 minute episodes) to the emphasis on London (or, rather, Cardiff pretending to be London) or the “soap opera” aspects of bringing in the companions’ families. Well, yes, things have changed. But the audience has changed too and people want different things from their Saturday evening drama. Yes, it might annoy the die-hard Who fans or the science fiction audience. But it’s not made for them. If the BBC relied on pleasing those people then there’s no way the show would have been as successful as it has been.

2/ Davies is gay, and therefore the spawn of the devil

Amazing as it seems in the twenty-first century, this is the second most common complaint about the new series that I’ve heard. Yes, Davies is gay. People are. And they don’t hide it any more. And it’s a perfectly normal part of society. Deal with it.

Davies is handing over Stephen Moffat. Fans of the show should be pleased with this as Moffat has written some of the most popular recent episodes – The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink (surely forty-five of the best minutes of TV ever broadcast). Older TV fans will also remember his earlier work like Press Gang and Joking Apart. And, in common with Davies, he seems to be a long-time fan of Doctor Who. The BBC story quotes him as saying:

I applied before but I got knocked back ‘cos the BBC wanted someone else. Also I was seven.

Interesting times ahead for Doctor Who. Moffat has a big task ahead of him following in Davies’ footsteps. But I can’t think of anyone else who I’d rather see taking over.

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Redirecting RSS

I’ve harped on about this before, but I firmly believe that when you publish a URL on the web then it should be permanent. Of course you might want to change the way that your site is set up at some point in the future, but when you do that you should do everything you can to ensure that visitors using the old URLs are seamlessly redirected to the new URL.

And this is true of any kind of URL. It’s not just web pages. The same is true of the URLs of your web feeds. Many people who read your web feeds won’t check that they’re still reading the correct address. They’ll usually just assume that you’re still publishing the feed to the same place. Perhaps I’m not typical, but I subscribe to almost 200 feeds in Bloglines. If one of those feeds goes quiet, it could be weeks before I notice the problem and investigate what has happened.

When I was talking about the problems with the new Sun RSS feeds last year, I mentioned in passing that they had lost a lot of subscribers by just moving them to new URLs, but Martin covered it in more detail.

In the last few days, I’ve seen three instances of the same thing happening. Three places where a web feed just stopped working. Only one of them bothered to tell their users what was going one.

Firstly, I noticed that I was no longer getting updates from my MP’s web site. When I investigated further I found that they had redesigned the site and the URL for the feed had changed. Now I don’t expect my MP or his staff to understand stuff like this. But I expect they paid a lot of money to the people who redesigned the site. It would have been nice to think they were getting their money’s worth.

Secondly, this morning the BBC Doctor Who news site told me that it was moving (again, due to a redesign and change of technology). In this case they told their readers to resubscribe to the new feed, but a simple web redirection could have made it seamless. As a big Doctor Who fan, Martin has also covered this in some detail. I expect the BBC’s web department to have the experience to know that this is a really bad way to handle the move.

And finally, this afternoon I noticed that I wasn’t getting any news from BoingBoing. I only noticed this because I had submitted a story to them and was looking to see if it had been published. Like the BBC web group, the people behind BoingBoing should really know what they are doing and shouldn’t make such basic mistakes.

I think that web feeds are a great tool. They enable me to regularly read far more data from the web than I did before I used them. But it’s clear that many web site owners are publishing them because everyone else is doing it and they don’t really understand how important they are.

Update: Another one. Today (May 1st) I see that the Telegraph have moved all of their RSS feeds. At least the dropped a message about it into the old feed. But haven’t these people heard of URL redirection?

Dawkins on Doctor Who

Russell T Davies was interviewed by the Independent last Sunday and he happened to mention that Richard Dawkins will be appearing in this series of Doctor Who.

The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion will appear as a guest star in the new series of Doctor Who, which began last night. “People were falling at his feet,” says Davies, creator of the BBC’s flagship show. “We’ve had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping.”

Slightly unfortunate choice of words with “worshipping”, but this sounds like really good news to me. And it would be a great nod to the older Who fans if they could squeeze in a cameo by Dawkins’ wife too.

The Return of Doctor Who

As is becoming traditional (well, this is at least the second year I’ve done it) at this time of the year, it’s interesting to look around for hints about when the new series of Doctor Who will launch. Normally it’s about Easter, but Easter is about as early as it gets this year – and it’s definitely not starting this weekend.

Of course, it won’t start until Torchwood has finished. And there are still a few episodes of that to run. But the BBC seem to have noticed that issue too and from this week, they’ll be showing two episodes a week (on Wednesday – as usual – but also on Friday), so that means that Torchwood will be out of the way in just over a week.

The BBC Doctor Who site isn’t giving anything away yet (well, yes, it’s giving away Doctor Who wallpapers – but you know what I mean) but a couple of days ago they ran a news story saying that the trailer for the new series will be shown on Saturday 22nd. Since when was the broadcast of a trailer such big news?

Obviously the show won’t start on the same day as the first broadcast of the trailer. So we can say that the earliest it will start is Saturday 29th March. But then I saw this post on TV Scoop (which I found via Planet Dr Who) which claims that David Tennant and Catherine Tate will be guests on the Jonathan Ross show on Friday April 4th. It seems likely that this appearance will be promoting the start of the new season. So that’s where I’m sticking my marker.

I reckon the new series will start on Saturday 5th April.

Update: Looks like the CBBC Newsround site is the first one to confirm that date.