Submit a Question to Tony Blair through Facebook

June 27, 2007

Prime Minister’s questions today will be one of Tony Blair’s last engagements in office.

David Burrowes MP has been allotted the first question of the session, and has set up a Facebook page for people to send in their questions, the best of which will be asked in the Commons.

As of this morning his current favourite was “Given that Tony Blair has failed to answer any questions properly in the last ten years, what value is there in asking him any more questions?”.

Update: There were rather more, and better, suggestions on Iain Dale’s Diary. In the end Mr. Burrowes asked:

In 1997, the Prime Minister said that there were “24 hours to save the NHS”.

Why is it that, more than 87,600 hours later, his successor is indicating that there is still a need to save the NHS?


Ryan Air – Beware of the Extras

June 7, 2007

My wife and I recently got to spend a weekend in Rome, and we had a great time soaking up the atmosphere and tasting some excellent food. Unfortunately we experienced a spot of aggravation with Ryan Air on the return journey.

We flew with Ryan Air from Luton on the outward journey, and since we were only going for the weekend we packed all our luggage into a single bag. It weighed in at 17.8KG so I paid an extra £10 (on top of the £10 already paid online).

Aside from the lurid yellow colour scheme in the cabins, Ryan Air have stripped out elasticated seat pockets so you have nowhere to put your stuff apart from on your lap or the tray table. I assume this is to save money maintaining them. And the £1.90 you pay for a tea doesn’t include a holder, so the cup is initially very hot to handle. But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by these costs-cutting measures as they do advertise themselves as the “low fares airline”. Except that the price for two return flights was £419.96, and taxes, fees and charges took the total to more than £500. The girl next to us had paid more than £300 for her ticket.

However, my real gripe with Ryan Air is the opportunistic, arguably misleading, pricing they adopt for checked in luggage. Here are the details that were included on the booking confirmation:

RYANAIR CHECKED AND HAND BAGGAGE POLICY:

The checked baggage allowance is 15kg per person (no infant allowance).
No pooling/sharing of baggage allowances is permitted, even for
passengers travelling together on the same reservation.

Customers wishing to check baggage into the hold of the aircraft must pay a
Baggage Fee for each item of checked baggage, per flight. The Baggage Fee
can be prepaid either at the airport, or through a Ryanair call centre, at
the rate of 7GBP/10EUR) (»10/€12 for all flights from the 1st March 2007
onwards) per item of baggage/per one-way flight.

BABY BUGGIES, WHEELCHAIRS, SCOOTERS AND WALKING FRAMES ARE CARRIED FREE OF
CHARGE

Each passenger can carry one piece of hand baggage onto the aircraft
restrictions apply – click here for details.
<link removed as the page is no longer available>
The following hand baggage restrictions apply per person (no infant allowance
Maximum weight – 10kgs Maximum dimensions 55cm x 40cm x 20cm.

On our return trip we packed more stuff into our hold luggage because we had purchased a few items, including some fantastic olive oil (which would not have been allowed through in our cabin luggage with the current security restrictions). So we were up to 25KG. I was fully prepared for paying for the extra bag and even tried to save time by going to the ticket desk and paying before check in but was told that I had to check in first.

So we arrived at the check-in desk and were sternly informed that we were over our allowance and would need to pay for the extra. I dutifully returned to the ticket desk and waited at the busy (of course) excess baggage counter until it was my turn. The girl at the counter informed me that the luggage was 10KG over which was chargeable at £5.50 per kilo (and by the way they don’t take cash on the RyanAir desk, although they do on Easyjet). I pointed out that if the 25KG was split between 2 bags I would only have had to pay an extra £10. She repeated “It is Ryan Air policy”, and the heated discussion was brought to a close when I requested to see which part of policy reflects this. She printed the terms and conditions from the web site, which do describe charging the excess rate.

I believe that this approach is at best opportunistic. The pricing description in the booking confirmation seems to describe the luggage pricing, and gives no indication that there is another pricing scheme. When I mentioned this to some of my colleagues they weren’t surprised. But I guess it’s one of those situations where they only catch you once.

Bottom line: take an extra bag; or do yourself a favour and fly with a better airline.


Improving Software Usability

June 6, 2007

While my blog reading list has been evolving somewhat recently, one site that I continue to enjoy is Jeff Attwood’s Coding Horror. His post from yesterday talks about improving usability through observation; I liked the point about rolling out experimental features to certain users, and wonder how many companies actually do this?

The post reminds me of a very practical talk that Joshua Schachter gave at FOWA last year entitled “Delicious. Things we’ve learned”. He covers a range of topics, but addresses the usability theme at a number of points:

12:58 – “build features that people will use rather than what they ask for”

17:14 – “watch for interesting behaviour, then amplify/ignore/dampen it”

28:30 – “be careful where you spend your efforts … watch your system carefully”

29:51 – “be sure to measure behaviour rather than claims”

Another company that produces popular web apps is 37 Signals, which I think derives from their focus on usability and simplicity. They cover feature selection in their book “Getting Real”, and the approach they describe is more prescriptive, based on stripping out features until you are left with only the essentials.

Both the MP3 and the book are highly recommended.


New Entries in the Collins English Dictionary

June 5, 2007

Collins has released the 9th edition of its English Dictionary which includes a cornucopia of new entries. The Times pre-empted its release by observing that the modern vocabulary presents a less than flattering picture of Britain under the outgoing Prime Minister.

New additions include: hoodie (“a young person who wears a hooded sweatshirt, regarded by some as a potential hooligan”), muffin top, extraordinary rendition, wags, carbon footprint, me-media, Croydon facelist.

Covered by The Age, the BBC, The Independent and Yahoo.


Thinking about this Blog

June 1, 2007

When I started this blog back in October I considered these themes:
– “The Devil(‘s) in the Detail”
– “Constant Learning”
– “Time Flies” (= how to save it, or use it better)
– “Practical Technology”
But ultimately I decided to go with the (safe) option of “Mostly software and security” as that’s what I spend most of my time focusing on.

I am finding that the topics I’m choosing to write about aren’t necessarily the ones that I would have predicted, and the process is helping me to clarify what it is that I find interesting, and that matters to me. My day job is in “enterprise” IT which is usually about increasing efficiency and/or market share for the client. It’s important for me that I keep learning, and follow the trends of where the skills market is heading, as well as the techniques for developing software more quickly/cheaply/enjoyably. As a consumer, I believe that technology should make my life easier/simpler/more enjoyable, and I find that it’s usually the points of detail that make the difference here (in particular with usability). I also have to juggle time between my day job, my family, and projects that are strategic for my company so how I manage my time is important.