Categories
life

When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price – but by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.

Categories
customer service

Taxing Affairs

People complain about the Inland Revenue. Of course they complain about the taxes they have to pay. But they also complain about the level of service they get from the people in the tax office. Sometimes they might question the level of intelligence of people in the tax office.

Here’s an example of why they might do that. It concerns my company’s VAT return.

At the end of November I needed to fill in a VAT return. My accountants have a great online system where it does all that calculation for me. I can even submit the return online. The only thing it doesn’t do is to transfer the money to HMRC.

So on the 29th November I logged in to my account and saw that I needed to pay HMRC £X. I logged into my company bank account and transferred £X to HMRC’s account.

In December I went off on holiday.

In early January I returned from holiday and found a letter from HMRC saying that I hadn’t submitted a VAT return and that they had therefore estimated my payment as £Y. £Y was less than £X.

I emailed my accountant, she looked into it and soon realised what the problem was. Although I had made the payment for the VAT owed, I hadn’t actually submitted the return. I logged on and did that immediately. This should have been the end of the matter.

This morning I received another letter from HMRC. One written on 9th January. Today is 17th January. I don’t know what mechanism HMRC use to send letters, but it’s not particularly fast.

This morning’s letter said that my company had an outstanding VAT debt of £377.30.

£377.30 is £X – £Y. That is, it is exactly the amount by which the the payment I made was greater than their estimate of my liability.

This is very confusing. I have paid more than their estimated that I owed and they still think that I owe them money. I have no idea how they could have reached that conclusion.

But I hope my accountant can find out when she gets back to her office on Monday.

Categories
work

Dear Recruiter

Over on LinkedIn, a recruiter on one of the Perl groups has asked for what people want from recruiters. He’s interested to hear what recruiters do that give them such a bad reputation. I thought that was an interesting question to answer, but as it might be interesting to other recruiters I’ve decided to answer it here rather than in in LinkedIn walled garden

So here are some things that recruiters can do that would make me happier to deal with them.

Understand the Industry

I’m not expecting every recruiter to be an expert in every technology that they deal with, but it’s not hard to get an overview of what things are and how they hang together. In the case of the programming language I’m most interested in, it would be nice if they could learn that it’s called “Perl” not “PERL”.

Don’t Just Use Keyword Searches

I understand that they all have lots of candidates in their databases. And I know that keyword searches are a quick way to find the candidates that will be interested in a particular role. But that method will often find a lot of false positives too. And every false positive that you contact is another person who you are potentially annoying.

Over ten years ago I spent three weeks writing Perl code that interfaced with a SAP system. I still leave that work on my CV as it’s a useful idiot filter. If I get email about a SAP role then I know that it comes from a recruiter who doesn’t read CVs.

By all means use a keyword search to find potential candidates to contact. But read their CVs before emailing them.

Answer Your Email

Is it really so hard to answer email? Oh it’s fine when you first get in touch with me. If you’re trying to sell me a role then you’re happy to answer email almost instantly. But if I’m emailing you in response to an advert you’ve placed on the internet then probably 80% of the time I never get a response. And if I phone to chase up then you’re always “on the other line” and you never call back. You may have decided that I’m not right for the role, but it would be useful for me to hear your reasons.

The worst time to not get replies to emails is when you’ve sent my CV to a client and they’ve turned me down for some reason. Over the seventeen years that I’ve been a contractor there are probably twenty jobs that I’m still waiting to hear back from. Of course I’m not holding my breath. But it’s just rude not to give feedback.

Make Notes

Something like this happens regularly. I get an email from a recruiter asking if I’m interested in a role. I reply saying that I’m currently very happy in a contract that doesn’t end for another three months. The next week I get another email from the same recruiter asking if I’m interested in a different role.

If I tell you that I won’t be available for three months then you should read that as “don’t contact Dave about new contracts for at least two months”. Why is that so hard to understand? And, no, I don’t really expect you do remember who I am from one week to the next, but surely it’s not too hard to have a “do not contact before” note somewhere on your records.

It’s almost as bad when it’s different recruiters from the same agency who contact me. Surely they share these details on a centralised database. Don’t they?

Learn English

We’re supposed to have a professional relationship. So you should be communicating in a professional manner. And that means taking care over your writing. Perhaps I’m not typical but it takes me a great force of will to read past “Hope your well” at the start of an email.

Just a few suggestions from me. I’m sure other people who read this will have their own pet hates. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Categories
media

Daily Mail on Google and Adele

Today, the Daily Mail published the most hysterical pile of anti-internet crap that I think I’ve ever seen. And that takes some doing as Daily Mail articles usually combine a complete lack of understanding of the internet together with the deep distrust and fear that Mail writers have for most of the modern world.

In this article, writer Alex Brummer turns his attention to Google and the damage that they are doing to the UK’s digital industry. It’s the usual concoction of nonsense and half-truths and it contains a typical Mail conspiracy theory claiming that David Cameron is promoting Google as a good example of a digital success story because his strategy advisor Steve Hilton is married to Rachel Whetstone, Google’s head of communications. It doesn’t seem to occur to Brummer at all that Cameron is promoting Google as a good example of a digital success story because… well because it’s a bloody good example of a digital success story.

The article then goes seriously off the rails as Brummer explains how Google’s business plan is plunder the copyright of hard-working British artists like Adele and to share their work with everyone for free. It reaches a peak of insanity as he says this:

One only has to switch on the computer, call up the Google search engine and type in the name of a star like Adele to understand why the digital channel is such a threat to the UK’s performers, and for that matter our whole creative industry.

Nine out of the first ten websites which pop up on Google’s search engine are run by pirates who have downloaded Adele’s output and offer it online far more cheaply than official copyrighted sites and High Street retailers.

Claims like this aren’t new, of course and presumably Brummer assumes that everyone who reads those paragraphs will nod in agreement whilst thinking to themselves, “Of course that’s what happens – wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns up a few pages of porn too”. Brummer relies on his readership being people who have be told so many horror stories about Google search results that they are now scared to even visit the site.

So what happens if you actually bother to try Brummer’s suggestion. Here’s what I got:

  • Three links to videos on YouTube. Two of them are from her record label and the other one seems to be from Adele’s own channel.
  • Two links to Adele’s official web site.
  • Three links to news stories about Adele (including Brummer’s own story).
  • A link to Adele’s MySpace page.
  • Five images.
  • A link to a page about Adele on last.fm.
  • A link to a page of Adele lyrics (this doesn’t look official).
  • A link to Adele’s Facebook page.
  • A link to an Amazon page promoting Adele.
  • A link to Adele’s record company’s page about her.

All of which rather seems to disprove Brummer’s theory. From this sample it seems that Google seems very adept at putting Adele’s fans in touch with official sources of information about her. Only the lyrics page seems unofficial or unapproved – and do lyrics really count as piracy?

There’s another option to consider here though. For a couple of years now Google have been providing customised search results. Whenever you search on Google, they take into account the links that you have clicked on from previous search results. I’m not surprised that I get a page of official links as those are the kinds of sites that I usually show most interest in. If Mr Brummer gets a page of pirate links then perhaps he should investigate who has been using his computer.

Categories
science

Government Ignores Science

Section 47 of the Government Response to the Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on homeopathy:

We note the Committee’s view that allowing for the provision of homeopathy may risk seeming to endorse it, and we will keep the position under review. However, we do not believe that this risk amounts to a risk to patient trust, choice or safety, nor do we believe that the risk is significant enough for the Department to take the unusual step of removing PCTs’ flexibility to make their own decisions. We believe that providing appropriate information for commissioners, clinicians and the public, and ensuring a strong ethical code for clinicians, remain the most effective ways to ensure quality outcomes, patient satisfaction and the appropriate use of NHS funding.

So basically no change. Our new government is just as capable of ignoring scientific evidence as the old one. And the NHS will continue to squander millions on sugar pills.

I expect I’ll come back and fill this in with some more detail when I’ve calmed down a little.

Categories
politics

Nadnomics

Nadine Dorries (the MP for mid-Narnia) has been explaining why she is not in favour of all-women short-lists. I have to confess that positive discrimination makes me slightly uncomfortable, so it would have been easy for her to write something that I would have had to grudgingly admit to agreeing with.

Luckily for me, she didn’t do that. She wrote a load of total nonsense.

A lot of it is the usual crap that we have come to expect from Mad Nad. Parliament is a boys club. Women have a hard time there. She only survives because she is “shot through with working class pride”. I’m surprised she didn’t mention that women are generally happier in the kitchen.

That’s all business as usual as far as Dorries is concerned. What’s new (as far as I know) is here introduction of a new branch of statistics (let’s call it “Nadnomics”) which bears no relation to any statistics that I have ever been taught.

Here’s what she says:

As only 30% of applications to become an MP are from women, and that’s after all the hype and window dressing, we have to ask the question, what do women really want? Because it’s becoming pretty obvious that 70% of them don’t want to be an MP.

That’s a pretty astonishing leap of logic. Because 30% of applications to become MPs are from women, that must mean that 70% of women don’t want to be MPs.

Let’s take this nice and slowly for the slow of understanding. We have a population of people who have applied to become an MP. How big do we think that this population is? Well, Nad doesn’t say but we can estimate some figures. There are about 650 constituencies in the country. Let’s assume that on average they have five candidates standing and that each party has six people applying to stand in each constituency. That gives us about 20,000 people trying to be an MP at any time. The true number will be lower than that as I’m completely ignoring the fact that the majority of MPs don’t stand down at an election and their places on the ballot paper are therefore uncontested.

So we have a vague estimate of 20,000 people who want to be an MP. If we believe Nad’s numbers,  14,000 (70%) of them are men and 6,000 (30%) are women. Let’s make up another number and assume that there are at any time 20 million men and 20 million women who are eligible to become an MP. This means that 0.07% of men and 0.03% of women want to become an MP. A long way from the numbers that Nadnomics gave us.

Yes, I was making up numbers all over the place. And the margin of error in my calculations is huge. But it would need to astronomical (which it isn’t) in order to get anywhere near the Nadnomics numbers.

And I haven’t even started to question Nad’s source data. Where does that 70/30 figure come from? Is it from the Tory party? Or has she aggregated data from all parties? Perhaps other parties have different percentages. Has she considered that?

Yes, there’s a problem that women are criminally under-represented in Parliament. And yes, there’s an interesting debate to be had around whether or nor all-women short-lists are the best way to address this problem. But throwing around ridiculous numbers like this is not the best way to approach it.

Voters of Mid-Beds, your MP is a fool. Please don’t re-elect her.

Categories
health

1970 Calling

Nadine Dorries seems to be writing her blog today from about forty years ago. She’s talking about single mothers.

I like the idea that we can introduce a structure that will capture 16 and 17 year old girls and teach them parenting skills, help them to acquire the knowledge which will enable them to run a home, manage a budget, cook meals, feed
and nurture a baby and learn to value and respect themselves.

How you got that? Parenting skills, running a home, cooking meals and looking after babies – that’s all woman’s work. Presumably the men are all too busy off hunting mammoths.

Oh, she mentions boys too. But only insofar as we should stop them getting young girls pregnant. Of course the whole thing is driven by Dorries’ belief that the way to stop children having sex is to stop sex education classes in school. Because, of course, without measured and practical advice from school children would never get the idea to experiment with sex. I mean they’d never get that idea from, oh pretty much anywhere they look in society.

The people of Mid Beds elected her to represent her. If she’s at all representative, then I’m really glad I don’t live in Mid Beds.

Oh look. Now I’ve gone and got all angry.

Update: A far more measured dissection from Sara Bedford.

Categories
politics

Voting Dilemmas

There’s a European Parliament election on Thursday. I’ve been trying to work out who to vote for.

That’s not normally a problem for me. I’m a natural Labour voter and have been for most of my life. Voting for any other party feels strange. But I’m so disillusioned with the government right now that it would seem even stranger to support them. So I’ve been looking elsewhere.

And there’s plenty to choose from. There are nineteen parties and independents standing in the London constituency. The voting form is huge.

There are some obvious candidates to eliminate. I’ll never vote Tory, UKIP, BNP, English Democrat, Christian Alliance or NO2EU. I might consider voting for a socialist party, but there are two of them, seemingly determined to split the socialist vote and ruin any chance that a united party might have of winning a seat. Then there are a few independents and smaller parties that no-one’s ever heard of and who stand no chance of winning. Not going to vote for any of them.

I was left with two alternatives – the Lib Dems and the Green Party. I’ve dabbled with both of these parties before. I was a member of the Green Party briefly twenty or so years ago and I voted Lib Dem in the last General Election. They both have polices that I agree with and policies that I don’t agree with. I couldn’t really see much to choose between them.

Then I saw this report about the Green Party’s health policies. I knew that the Greens had some Luddite tendencies, but this goes way beyond anything that I could possibly support. How can I possibly vote for a party that says:

complementary and alternative medicine, and community and social interventions will be used where appropriate

Or

Patient empowerment would eventually encompass choice of treatment backed by NHS funding for patients’ preferred treatment whether it be within the conventional framework of treating an illness and/or utilising alternative therapies.

Or

We will encourage the development of a wider and more relevant range of research techniques, including methods appropriate to the assessment of complementary therapies.

I’m not really clear why the current research techniques aren’t “appropriate to the assessment of complementary therapies”. Perhaps it’s because they consistantly demostrate that the vast majority of complementary therapies are pretty much useless.

The article also points out that elsewhere the Greens have stated:

We would oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields.

That would appear to have made my mind up for me. There’s no way I could ever vote for anyone who supports the promotion of “alternative” medicine. I won’t be voting Green.

So, unless the Labour Party does something spectacular to call me back to the fold before I fill in my voting papers this evening, it looks like I’ll be voting Lib Dem.

Categories
science

Defending Homeopathy (Or Not)

Neal’s Yard Remedies are purveyors of the finest magic water. Water that remembers magic ingredients that have been dissolved into it and diluted until no memory of the ingredients can possibly remain. Yes, they sell homeopathic treatments.

Someone in their PR department decided it was a good idea to get involved in the Guardian’s “You Ask, They Answer” feature. In this feature, readers post questions and the organisation under the spotlight posts the answers.

Except this week it didn’t quite work our that way.

The article was published on the Guardian web site at about noon yesterday. And the questions soon came flooding in. Questions like:

Do you see no problem with trying to be ‘ethical’ while at the same time selling snake oil for a living?

And:

Please could you explain what level of evidence of efficacy you require before stocking any product?

And:

Does your part in the MMR scare make you feel guilty?

You know, the obvious kinds of questions that reasonable people who like to ask woo-mongers. For almost twenty-four hours the questions kept coming in. Ben Goldacre would have been proud of the Guardian’s readership.

After a while people started wondering when the answers would be forthcoming and the web site editor popped up occasionally to assure them that they would be arriving very shortly.

Then about an hour ago, this comment was posted:

have just had a chat with NYR.

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.

So yes, as several people have pointed out, this has become something of ‘You Ask’, rather than a ‘You Ask, They Answer’. I’m still hoping NYR will reconsider.

When faced with the opportunity to answer some of their sternest critics and to produce evidence of the efficacy of their products, Neal’s Yard Remedies bottled it. They decided that it was better to just run away and hide.

I hope that the Guardian will run with this story. I’d love it if as many people as possible knew that Neal’s Yard Remedies were unable to produce answers to the questions that any sane person would need answers to before buying stuff from them.

And yes, I know already the kind of comments I’ll get if the friends of homeopathy get wind of this article. “But it cured my mother’s cancer”, “science doesn’t know everything”, “you can’t be sure until you try it”. All nonsense of course. Homeopathy does not and cannot work.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

Update: A nice follow-up about why this is a PR disaster for the company.

Categories
science

Simon Singh vs The British Chiropractic Association

The respected science writer, Simon Singh, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association because he dared to write an article (that link is to a copy – the original has been removed from the Guardian web site) which said this:

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The BCA didn’t agree with this description and went to court. Jack of Kent has some interesting detail (and opinions) on the case. The judge has, unfortunately, ruled in favour of the BCA.

There are two important principles at stake here. Both of which are subjects that I’m very interested in.

Firstly there’s the idea that people like Singh should, of course, be free to expose bogus scientific nonsense wherever they find it. Chiropractice is one branch of “alternative medicine” which has worryingly high levels acceptance amongst the general population. Most people don’t seem to realise that it has no scientific basis. Articles like Singh’s, exposing the unscientific basis for such practices, can only be a good thing. It’s a shame (though not, of course, at all surprising) that the BCA have put their concern for their members’ income above the well-being of society.

And that leads me to the second principle – the UK’s ridiculous libel laws. In a case like this where it’s a (figuratively) small person against a large organisation, the large organisation always wins. Partly because they an pay for better lawyers, partly because the small person is likely to be scared of the punitive damages that can be awarded, but largely because UK law reverses the burden of proof in a defamation case – the defendent has to prove their innocence rather than the accusor having to prove the defendent’s guilt.

Singh is now hoping to appeal the verdict. But that’s a risky business as he could lose again. Last night there was a public meeting of his supporters in London (here’s a good write-up by the New Humanist magazine). I was unable to be at the meeting, but there are two important principles at stake here, so I’ll be giving this cause all the support I can.