Monday, July 6, 2020

Bye, Plusnet. Hello Zen!

I should have done this months ago, but I've finally swapped over to Zen.

For some reason, I wasn't expecting the connection to start for a few more days - I had it in my mind that I'd arranged it to swap over on the last day of the billing month with Plusnet (which would have been later this week). So, when I woke up to no internet this morning, I was a little shocked.

A quick check on my home router - yup, my Plusnet credentials don't appear to be working any more. That's either a great sign (Zen's got my line swapped over) or a terrible one (Plusnet have disconnected me and I've got a week of sitting on my hands!)

Still, the Fritzbox router was sitting there, ready to plug in - so, away we go!

A little bit of danging wire work, disconnected my main router (a now aging Asus RT-AC68U), plopped in the Fritzbox, turned everything on, and (as the documentation suggested) made a cup of coffee and waited.

2 minutes later, and I've got wifi, and through that, internet. Rejoice!

The next step is to get my old router set up with new credentials - I've got a decade's worth of router setup (DHCP addresses, port forwarding, etc) that I'd prefer to just keep as-is for now. Unfortunately, I don't appear to have a valid account as far as the Zen website is concerned - yet. I'm sure it'll propagate at some point today, but I can't yet find my DSL credentials (I know where to look, the button's just not there yet).

Luckily, my Asus router has a "dual WAN failover" mode which lets you nominate a LAN port as a backup internet connection - and after plugging that into the Zen router, it just automatically works. Second rejoice of the day!

One quick check of the weather on Alexa later, and we're up and running as though nothing has changed.

Speedtests are showing that the speed is at the bottom of the range I'd like to see (hovering around 50/15) - hopefully that'll train up over the next week.

So far, then, so good - internet works, I'm assuming the phone works but if not, no problem (I mean, who uses the landline these days anyway?) and my existing setup seems happy. And it's cheaper. And I'm not locked into a multi-year contract. And it's Zen - who (from previous experience, and lots of research) actually give a damn about customer service and quality of care.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Going down the only road I've ever known

Here I go again. 

It's that time of year - the time where you get the yearly reminder that you're over-paying for your broadband, but if you just pay a year in advance, you can save yourself 20 quid a year on line rental for a phone you don't use.

Because it's 2020 now, I've had the same mobile number for over a decade, and my last landline phone stopped working because I used it so rarely the battery broke.

What better way to waste a few hours than idly clicking through your current internet provider's website, seeing just how expensive your current deal is, compared to the offers for new customers.  It's one of my favourite pastimes.

Oh Plusnet, how could you get it so wrong...

So, I'm currently paying the grand sum of £20.99 a month for my broadband (Unlimited Fibre Extra, which is basically 60Mb down, 15Mb up give or take). On top of that, I'm paying the line rental, which on the saver plan is around £18 quid a month, rising to £20 a month when my yearly deal runs out.

Let's do the math here - that's 41 quid a month. Not cheap. Not ridiculous (especially compared to other countries) but it's over the 40 quid mark, so close to 500 quid a year for broadband.

Plusnet have, to their credit, provided a pretty solid service since I've been with them - nearly two years since the BT switcheroo debacle. Internet is normally working, normally hits the speeds they advertise, and has decent latency etc.

But still - it's 41 quid! Let's see what new customers get these days, shall we?

If I were a new customer, I'd get the same package (broadband and line rental, which is now included pretty much everywhere) for £27 a month (actually £26.99, but I'm going to round up for clarity's sake). 14 pounds a month cheaper. Of course, the downside is the contract length - 18 months. Wonderful if you never plan on moving house or provider. Terrible for everyone else, and that instantly gives me pause *but* (and here's the big stickler) - this is for new customers only.

So, before I start the "I'm paying too much" dance with customer support, I take a few minutes to check out the alternatives.

BT - slightly pricier. 50Mb down for £30 a month, 67 Mb down for 35 quid a month. 24 month contract (what the hell, I mean seriously - I've had numerous relationships and jobs that didn't last 24 months). Price is still cheaper than my current, but that contract is faaaaar too long. Plus, BT really pissed me off last time I was with them (and the time before that, and the time before that). Hard pass.

Zen - £30 a month for 35Mb down, £35 a month for 66Mb down. 12 month contract. That's looking a a lot better. I used to have Zen dialup back in the day, and they were excellent.

Who else is an option? Talk Talk is out, as everyone I've ever spoken to who used them really didn't value the experience. Sky is an option - £27 a month, 18 month contract. So is Vodafone - £23 a month, 18 month contract.

The list goes on. EE. Shell. Origin. Even John Lewis provide broadband these days. All for at least 5 quid a month less than my current price.

This quite clearly shows that I'm overpaying for t'internet.

Then I have another dig on the Plusnet site, and wonder of wonders - there's a price quoted on my current package, clearly stating "out of contract price - £13.00 a month".

£13 a month? but I'm paying £21 (plus line rental)!

It's time to play the "contact customer service" game. I pop a quick chat message to the effect of "Why am I paying 21 when I should be paying 13" and wait.

"Oh, I can see you're overpaying" says the first customer rep. "Let's get you over to our options team, who can surely get that price reduced with a new contract ..."

Er, no. I don't want a new contract. I don't want lockin. I want the price you're showing on your website, which says "out of contract price".

I then get passed to the customer options team, who tell me in no uncertain terms that this price is a website glitch.

When I say that I find that hard to believe, the chat is unceremoniously ended (to be fair I did pop to the loo for a minute, but still).

A little more back and forth, and I'm told:
The price shown would be if I entered a new contract (even though it says "out of contract")
The price shown would be if I completed the order I'm currently processing (I'm not trying to order anything)
The price shown would be what I paid if I just pressed the button next to the price (which says "no change! you continue with your plan")

Computer says no.

And we've been here before, haven't we? Oh yes, we've been down this lonely road a few times.

The correct way to deal with this

Here's a lesson in customer service, for any interested readers.

If your website shows a price, and you think it might be wrong, honour it. And then go fix whatever is wrong in your backend.

Don't fucking argue with the customer.
Don't tell them that they're wrong, can't do math, and don't understand their monthly charges.
Don't try and persuade them to sign up to a new 18 month contract that's more expensive than a new customer gets.

Just honour the price, and if it's a mistake, fix the problem at your end.

Just to be clear - at £13 a month, I'm still paying more than your competitors when line rental is included (£33), and I'm still paying more than your new customer deal-of-the-day.

I'm not asking for a pot of fucking gold - I'm just asking for the price you show to be the price I pay, and for that price to not be 25%+ more expensive than your competitors.

I ain't wastin no more time

I've got a few more weeks on my current line rental saver plan, and then I'll be heading off to greener pastures. Thanks, Plusnet, for the total lack of effort on your part regarding customer retention. Yet another abject lesson in how to not win friends and influence people.

Brand loyalty

But this circles back to the much bigger issue - which is the whole concept of brand loyalty, and service inertia. Some folks stick with a brand because they like the product. Most folks stick with a brand because it's a recognisable "thing" in their catalogue of "things", and (especially if they're in contract) it's a pain in the arse to change. Switching your cornflakes is hard enough - switching your car insurance, power provider, or broadband is far too much mental effort for most folks (myself included, although I'm working on this).

Branding works, and contracts designed for customer retention through inertia work too. Humans are fragile meat sacks, and constantly hunting for the optimal choice in the tech tree of life is exhausting work. Ain't nobody got time for that, right?

Except, I do have some brands I'm loyal to - and that's because they've done me a solid. As a tangible example, Sonos replaced my six year old, £500 speaker when it broke, no questions asked. That's customer service. I will honour that effort with brand loyalty, because they have earned it. 

The rest of you, who use branding and human nature to retain and overcharge your customers? You can all go suck a lemon, because at some point, your business will wither and die on the vine, while your competitors (who do actually value a customer's investment) reap the rewards.

I could probably write a book on my frustration with those that rely on quirks of primate behaviour to drive their business models, but at least I'm aware of how it works - there's a lot of people out there who are simply oblivious to this stuff.

The upshot of all of this, though, is that I have to go hoop jumping to get a decent goddamn deal, and I'm getting tired of that. So very tired. I keep searching for an answer, but I never seem to find what I'm looking for. 

Enough ranting - time to listen to some Whitesnake ;)

Monday, February 25, 2019

Ain't life grand

Sometimes you have to smell the roses, don'tcha?

Today's been a beautiful summer day (February be gosh darned), warm enough to fire up the fire, and toast some marshmallows. I'm a big fan of the simplest things in life, and today had them in spades - wrestling, a movie, the smell of wood burning and a clear starry sky.

I love days like today ;)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

You ignorant retards, you've messed it up for all of us.

Yes, at long last, it's the Brexit post I've been writing in my head for - well, since the referendum was first proposed. Certainly since half the country (the idiot half) voted to throw all of our value and culture into a huge pile, piss on it, then burn it down.

"We voted for Brexit" is something that Mendacious May and a huge slice of the Government and Media repeat, ad nauseam. But that's wrong, isn't it? I didn't vote for it. I voted Remain. I voted to keep the UK in the EU - regardless of the failings, regardless of the federal machinations, regardless of the huge number of issues - it's better than the alternative.

Because, what is the alternative? No-one knows. It's been discussed over and over, but there is no clear Exit strategy. And it's obvious why that is - it's because people just can't fucking agree about what they don't like the most.

Some people don't like all them foreigners, coming over here, taking the jobs, and being on benefits.

Some people don't like all them politicians, over there, telling us what to do.

Some people don't like being treated like an equal at a table of equals, because we're the UK, goddamnit (or to be more accurate, we're Britain) - we used to have an empire that spanned half the world, we're the best bloody country that ever was, and the rest of them are all just trying to take us down.

Some people don't like globalisation and automation, and the impact it's having on their jobs, which is obviously because we're in the EU, so we should leave.

And some people just want to see the world burn, to their own benefit. I'm looking directly at you, Rees-Mogg and Boris. Oh, and you, Farage.

You see, there's a whole boatload of reasons, and *none of them are reasonable*. Not *one* of those reasons is a good reason to leave the EU.

There *are* some good reasons to be wary of the EU's long term political strategies, but the best way to deal with those are to be at the table, not to walk away, throwing insults behind us as we leave.

And that's simply the stage. The play - that's still in progress! Because half the country voted leave, when they literally have no idea what that means. The dictionary defines idiot to mean "Stupid person". If you pick one of two options, where one is "status quo" and the other is "Who knows, but it's probably going to be bad" then you're stupid.

And not only that, but we've had to endure close on two years of listening to the idiots try and figure out how to get out of the divorce bill. Before they decide how we're actually going to live our lives. Two years of bickering, posturing and ignoring half of the damn country who didn't want this, didn't vote for this, and knew it was a shitty idea in the first place because there was no plan.

I've watched, angry, disconsolate, from the sidelines. I predicted we'd be here or here-abouts at this point, because the folks in charge are a bunch of ignorant retards who are all out for themselves. Our PM didn't want to leave the EU, until the job opportunity came up, so now we've had two years of "Brexit means Brexit" and a deal that's much worse than what we've currently got as our only tabled option. (I predict even that won't be what we end up with - time's ticking here, folks).

I've watched the opposition, lead by a man who does want to leave the EU, sit on their hands and let Rome burn because a) they don't have a better option (no-one does) and b) they prosper where the Government fails. I had hoped that Labour would at least provide a sane exit to this whole debacle, but Corbyn wants us out, and if he can blame the whole thing on the Tories, of course that's the path he'll take.

Of course, that'll never be discussed openly in the BBC news, because god forbid we actually get honest coverage of this whole shit-show.

Here's another prediction - we'll come out of the EU on time, on schedule (because there's no alternative now) and the economy of this country will tank, and everyone will blame it on the Government (rightfully so) but will also pass blame on to the next Government (also, rightfully so) and they'll ignore the small cadre of people who make out like absolute bandits off this process, at the cost of everyone else living here. The UK will lose out on all the wonderful immigrants (skilled and otherwise) who bring value to our society. And all of the idiots who voted Leave will move their hate over to a new target, and blamestorm that instead.

I'm angry, and this time it's justified. If you voted Leave, fuck you. Fuck you very much. You should have known this was coming, because I did. Next time the fate of a generation is in your hands, do the decent thing and do some fucking research before you fucking vote.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The problem's at your end

Goodbye, BT

A few months ago, BT decided to raise my broadband and phone costs again. While I don't mind paying some form of premium for reliable internet access, when it gets to being twice as much as their competitors (57 quid a month, they wanted - for infinity 2 and a phone line I don't use) - that's the point where I start making annoyed noises and scoping out the competition.

But, this time I thought I'd give them a chance to make a me a deal. I got in touch with their customer service department, and explained to them politely and clearly that they were trying to charge me too much, I was prepared to leave, but if they would match their new customer deal I'd stay. (this was advertised at 38 quid a month).

"Computer says no" was the response, both times I rang up.

Really, BT? you're unable to match the rates you give to new customers, even though I've been a customer for years? You're so stubborn you're willing to throw away 400 quid a year revenue just to stick to your guns?

So, I dropped an email to the head of customer service. Of course, she's never going to read that email, but it only took me a few minutes to register my sincere disappointment. And what do you know, I got a call back (nearly a week later, all told, but it's something).

And do you know what they said?

"Computer says no".

Why even bother ringing me, if you are not going to match my request?

Then, after I said that 43 quid a month was too much (bear in mind, Plusnet are doing phone plus 60Mb fibre for 31 quid a month) - they rang me back again, and offered me 38 quid a month!

So, yes - they can offer me the same rate as new customers (better, in fact). It only took four emails and four phone calls to get to that point.

Now, by this point I'm just pissed off with them, enough that they can bite me. No, that's simply not good enough now. Off to your competitor I go.

Hello, Plusnet

(which is actually owned by BT, and runs over the same hardware connected to the same wires).

So, now we've got broadband and phone for 31 quid a month. And for the first two months, everything was absolutely perfect. I never use the landline anyway, so that might have had serious outages - who knows? But the important thing, the internet connection - seems fast and was rock solid.

Right up to today, at which point it went down.

So, I fire up my mobile hotspot, shift over all my important infrastructure to use that instead of the fibre connection, and open up a chat window to Jordan, the Plusnet support rep.

"Afternoon Jordan", says I. "My internet isn't working".

"Oh dear", says, he, "let's just do the ten minute the-problem-is-at-your-end-have-you-turned-it-on-and-off script".

"Please, can we skip the script", says I. "I've got dial tone, rebooted everything, and it was working an hour ago. can you please just check if there's a problem at your end".

And what do you know - he did! and there is! A major service outage, with an ETA of 7pm for resolution.

Which is Awesome to know. Now then, have a guess - is there any mention of this on the support/service status pages?

Is there hell. Of course there's not.

Why not just tell me?

Seriously, in the 21st century, why the hell don't you just update the service status page? If I know what's going on, and I have an idea of when it will be fixed, I can make a plan around that. If I have no idea, then I just get angry and frustrated, and I will direct that anger and frustration at you, Plusnet.

When will you goddamn learn?

I don't need you to pretend you're perfect - I need you to give me all the information you have, so I can make informed decisions around that. I understand things go wrong, I understand things break, and I understand problems take time to resolve.

What I don't understand is the idea that simply lying about it is in anyone's best interests.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Fixing the heating, upgrading to a Nest

My wonderful homeland had a huge dump of snow last week, and then a fast thaw over the weekend, leading to all sorts of shenanigans, mainly involving burst pipes and the like. It's eye-opening to see what living without water is like, even for a few hours - no flushing loo, no washing clothes or utensils, no shower - it's like living in the stone age, or some blighted third world location. It certainly makes you realise how horrific it must be to live somewhere that's had decent utilities (power, water, internet) and then have it taken away from you. My heart goes out to everyone living in that situation.

Another side effect of the weather was a slew of issues with our central heating at home. Due to some leaks and a bad expansion valve, our heating system is incredibly temperamental at the best of times - the pressure drops to zero, I have to add water to get the pump working, then the pressure goes up and the safety valve kicks in, unless I nurse it very carefully.

A Very Old Thermostat

The cold snap meant we needed the heating on pretty much constantly, which has evidently put strain on all the components, culminating in our wall thermostat giving up the ghost. It was a Potterton PRT2, which is old enough that it's discontinued and marked obsolete pretty much everywhere - it doesn't even show up on the Potterton website, which is just awesome (and why the above link goes to a retail site).

It was functional (before) - it certainly isn't any more. For a few days, the temperature didn't remotely reflect the real world, and then finally it decided it was going to stay on "below" unless I turned it down to 5 degrees, and even then it kicked in every now and again.

This caused the pressure to spike, as the heating was on constantly, our house became comfortably warm, then ridiculously warm, and finally we'd had enough.

A New Thermostat

I've had a Gen 1 Nest Thermostat sitting in a box for ages, waiting to be fitted. I'd examined the instructions numerous times, but the Heat Link portion of the Nest was scaring me - inside the box were connections for 7 wires, and I understood four of them but was a bit vague on the other three. I had looked behind the Potterton thermostat previously, and seen that there were three wires going from the wall into the box, and that didn't appear to be enough wires to drive the Nest Heat Link. So, in the box it stayed (for more than a year).

After the PRT2 started to get flakey, I decided to order a pretty cheap replacement - nothing fancy, just a dial and a temperature gauge, as well as an indicator light showing if the boiler was expected to be working or not. With all the other issues in the heating system, having an indicator to show state is critical for debugging the system!

I settled on the Heatmiser DS1-L which was about £25 on Amazon. It arrived a couple of days later, the day after the PRT2 completely gave up the ghost. I took a quick read of the instructions, turned off the power, and got stuck in.

Off with the old, on with the new

Potterton PRT2 wiring

Here's the wiring inside the Potterton PRT2. Three wires coming from the boiler - Live (red), Neutral (blue) and Switched Live (yellow) - sometimes referred to as Call For Heat or Boiler Live.

You'll also see a tiny stretch of brown wire, bridging from the Live in terminal 4 to Common in terminal 2. For maximum correctness, the red wire really should be going into terminal 4, and then bridging to terminal 2 over the brown wire. I'll come back to this in a minute.

And here's the Heatmiser DS1-L with the same wires connected.

Heatmiser DS1-L wiring

The Heatmiser can work two ways - with 230+ Volt switching, or "Volt Free" switching. The former uses the live line to provide the switching signal, and the latter uses a different line (with a much lower voltage, e.g. 12 volts) to provide the switching signal, presumably with a relay or something to bridge the two. Because I've only got three wires, I went with the reasonable assumption that I should wire this thing in 230+ Volt mode, so I pinched the brown wire from the PRT2 and wired everything in as you see above.

Once the wires were done, I screwed it all together, turned the power on; et voila! a working, accurate, thermostat!

Heatmiser DS1-L

It was around this point (just after the radiators finally got warm) that a slow realisation dawned on me. The Nest Heat Link - that needed four wires, didn't it? but maybe it could work with three and a bridge wire.

And indeed, in the manual, there's a paragraph describing just that:

"If existing controls operate at mains voltage, you can add a jumper cable between live and common. The jumper cable should be 0.75mm2 and 55mm long (with 8mm of exposed cable at each end)."

I'd totally missed the relevance of this the first three or four times I read the installation instructions. Oh well! So, that meant I should be able to simply replace the thermostat with the Heat Link box. 

The first issue I came across was that the wiring holes for the nest are really small - barely large enough for the single-core copper in my heavy duty spare wire, and definitely not large enough to fit a jumper wire and the live wire into a single hole - so I crafted a single-to-double splitter with some spare wire and a cable connector, turned the power back off, and got to work for a second time.

Here's the wires all attached inside the Nest Heat Link. The thermostat wire (the right two connections) is some temporary cable I was using to check the whole shebang was functioning properly.

You can see Neutral (blue) in terminal N, one of the two Live wires in terminal L, the "Satisfied" terminal (1) is empty, the "Common" terminal (2) is the second Live wire, and the "Call For Heat" terminal (3) contains the yellow wire.

The remaining two terminals on the right are the 12v connection between the Heat Link box and the Thermostat puck. You can connect the two wirelessly, but if you do that you need to provide power to the Thermostat puck over a USB cable. I debated for a while as to where I actually want to put the Thermostat, and finally decided that the best place for it was probably where we had the PRT2 anyway. So, I ran a tiny portion of cable connecting the two boxes. The Thermostat puck has a backing device that has both a USB charging port and two terminals for the other end of the connecting wire. If it's wired to the Heat Link, it charges over that connection, so no USB connection is required.

I originally sited the puck on the provided mounting plate, but it looked a bit rubbish - I think having the circle of the thermostat is a much nicer look on the wall.

Fully Installed

Power on, and a bit of tidying up - and it works! It's great to be able to trust the temperature sensor, although we've been used to the old "18 degrees" which was probably closer to 22 or 23. I wish I'd sanity-checked the old thermostat temperature before it decided to die on us.

Is the Nest any good?

We've only had it running for a day or two now, but I really love how we can control the temperature overnight, when we're out of the house, and use the phone to adjust things. I also like the look of all the smarts in the system (true radiant, scheduling, that sort of thing). I don't have any other Nest products, so I don't know whether the ecosystem as a whole is worth diving in to - and I probably won't need anything other than this particular device. So far, though - two thumbs up from me.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

A whole year has flown by; or maybe it's fairer to say it's crawled, staggered and rushed by, depending. My intention of having a flow of work-related posts on my work site and personal posts on this blog right here just didn't come to pass, and I think it's time to remedy that.

I've had over a year now - nearly two years, in fact - of self employment and rumination time. I think I've learned more about myself in that time than in the previous decade, and it's an ongoing process.

The American Declaration of Independence contains a phrase stating that all men are created with some unalienable rights, among these the rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I've been lucky enough to really give that a go over the last year or so - or at least to try and identify, for me, what these things mean and where the value lies.

I can tell you one thing, right now - working sucks. Or, to be more precise (because it really is relevant) - working to enable subsistence sucks. Work, in it's many forms, is awesome. Creating things of value - turning time and effort (and occasionally raw materials) into useful constructs is a wonderful pass-time. Working to pay the mortgage - not so much. I really wish that every human alive had the opportunity to live such that their passion was their goal, regardless of the fiscal value associated with that effort. I've been able to spend the better part of a year pursuing my passions (VR development, scanning technologies, learning about cool things, as well as spending time with my family) and it's enriched me hugely. I wouldn't give that up for all the tea in China.

Can you imagine living in a society where people worked because they wanted to, rather than because it was required to prove their value to enable subsistence? Note, I don't say "to survive", because I think we're already in a place where we've moved past the basic necessity of everyone putting their daily effort into providing food and shelter for themselves, their family and their tribe. Try as we might (and the culture we live in tries *really hard*) we honestly don't need everyone to be slogging their guts out to feed and clothe themselves. We already over-produce food, there's no reason we couldn't over-produce housing if our society deemed it valuable. We certainly over-produce plastic crap and reality TV.

So, what are we all working for? What are we all working towards? Are we all working to provide ourselves with an identity? What's the point of it all?

I've just finished reading a very interesting deconstruction of Banks' Culture which touches on the basis of a non-resource constrained society, and the motivations for being part of it. I'd like to think that at some level, we've already solved the Life and the Liberty parts of the equation, and should really be starting to drill down into the Happiness bit. So much of this is tied up in our self and cultural identity, it's kind of scary envisioning where our society moves to when much of the "work" becomes unnecessary, and then irrelevant.  As autos replace taxis (which they can, and likely should) - what does that mean for those who use that role as their subsistence tokens and cultural identity? What happens as the other roles get taken away?

Are we still going to live in a society where, if you're not clocking in 40 hours a week, you are "part-time"? If you're not gainfully employed in some fashion, you're lazy or worth-less compared to those who are? If you haven't read Keynes' essay where he postulates a 15 hour working week, I'd highly recommend it. One key phrase: "We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy."

When people begin to divorce their own worth and identity from their societal role - who do they become?

I appreciate I'm regurgitating the thoughts of a well-regarded critical thinker from nearly a century ago, but I think the coming decade is going to bring an end to the expectation that there will still be meaningful "work" for every person to do, for the benefit and advancement of society. Indeed today, much of the work that people do is centered around diverting people from appreciating the time they do have to spend on themselves, and our society is heavily structured around reinforcing the self-value of striving (working) as self-worth.

I think we've solved the economic problem - maybe now's the time to solve the other matters, of greater and more important significance.