Country You Go, Banking You Find

If you have been following this blog for a long enough time, you probably know I “enjoy” writing about banks, or at least I end up doing that quite a lot, whether I enjoy it or not. Part of that it’s because I still find myself reason about money the way I did when I had my own company, and part of that because, well, I have opinions of what good banking looks like to me. Part of the reason why I have that opinion, is that I have seen a lot of what good banking is not, and it gives me material to keep writing.

Of course, I’m also lucky because I have at this point seen how banking works (or fails to) in multiple countries, and I can at least compare the point of view of an user in those contexts. I don’t have any idea how this works from the other side of the fence of course, as I have (thankfully) never worked for a financial institution. Not that I haven’t considered that (hey, I live in London after all), but then I remember that I would probably be finding that things are even more screwed up than I can see from the outside, and decide to put my savings into gold bullions — as it stands, I just keep getting depressed by everything tech, and been considering turning to opening a coffee store and bakery.

And I do mean it, when I say that different countries have… pretty much nothing in common when it comes to banks and banking — costs, services, expected behaviour and contacts. Some of it appears to be so entrenched culturally, that suggesting changing something would be probably considered heresy.


In Italy it is (or at least was) common for current accounts to have a monthly fee, although somewhat nominal, and this usually doesn’t include much more than a bank card. I used to have a cheques book — but only because at the time, my family used to use those for a lot of things. I think I only ever used once, and I’m not remembering what for.

Outbound wires were expensive back when I was using them, raising in price over time, and differed whether I would be wiring to the same bank or to a different one. Cashing in cheques was free, as long as they were in the same currency, while receiving inbound wires depended on both currency and source of the wire — when I was a contractor working for Google on ChromeOS, the invoice payments arrived in dollars, but from within Europe, and they didn’t cost me enough “to notice”; when I received the payments from another customer, they dropped hundreds of euro on the bank’s coffers — which is why I am happy that TransferWise exists now.

While Italy had early federated ATMs that allows you to access your money at any time, there is one thing that I have noticed is not common elsewhere: accessing ATMs outside of your bank’s own is generally a paid option. And I don’t mean that in the USA sense (that I’ll get to later) of ATMs that charge you a fee to use them — I mean that the bank will charge you a fee to use an ATM of a competitor. This got to the ironic part where, when visiting Italy after moving to Dublin, it was cheaper for me to use an Irish debit card to get some cash out of a machine, because my Italian bank didn’t have any ATM in an easily-reachable place for me to use. This might be annoying to me, but it’s a significant pain for people like my mother who don’t drive, and that need to be driven to another town to find a free machine.

Another interesting note about Italian bank cards is that, up until very recently, were not usable online. I think nowadays most banks have at least a paid option to give you a normal Visa or MasterCard debit card, but for a long time you ended up with cards that couldn’t be used online at all — even when they had 19 digits on them for the Maestro circuit. Indeed, back when I hit these issues I did ask whether I should have gotten a VPay (Visa’s answer to Maestro, before Visa Debit), but I was told that that would have been less accepted in Italy itself.

Credit cards are still uncommon — before bank cards could be used online, the vast majority of people I knew who made purchases on eBay would be using pre-paid cards (Visa Electron or MasterCard Debit), that you topped up for a fee. The most common one at least back then was issued by the Italian post (Poste Italiane), under the name PostePay — it was also one of the biggest scam targets for many, as many eBay sellers would pretend that the PostePay logo appearing on the announcements meant that they would pay directly to a pre-paid card, rather than through PayPal – a great scam, since eBay can’t see the money changing hands, and won’t protect you from fraudsters. At least they seem to have abandoned chip’n’sign.

On the other hand, direct debits have been a thing for a long while… although that became an issue when SEPA Direct Debit became a thing. Indeed, the old Italian direct debit system was advanced enough (and similar enough to the SEPA DD Core specifications) that it appears most banks and operators just re-used the same infrastructure, just changing the size of the fields used as parameters. This worked well as long as you were not trying something as silly as direct-debiting an Italian utility to an Irish bank account or vice-versa. And I know that because I tried.

To be honest, though, not everyone is using direct debits still. Before my parents split up and I started being the one paying for the bills, my father insisted on not using direct debits at all, and instead paid the bills at the post office — and since a number of times the bills arrived past due, we ended up paying quite a lot of money in interests. The pay-to-the-post-office thing is also a fairly standard concept of Italian culture, at least up to the ’90s. I don’t think any of my age-peers are doing that anymore, particularly because post offices are pain to get to: in many town you can only get to them in the morning, and not over the weekend.

Indeed we got to the point that a lot of banks offer (or at least used to offer) a postal payment service so you could put in your request for a postal payment online… and then receive the paper receipt by snail mail, because what they pretty much did was forwarding the request to a local post office, with batch-printed money order forms!


Given the fact that Ireland is part of the EU, and thus SEPA, you may think that things are mostly the same between Ireland and Italy. You would be wrong.

First of all, bank accounts in Ireland are a mess to choose from, because none provides any decent service. The one account I was given when I landed, through Google on AIB, was one of the most commonly used one, and required €2500 in the account at every single day of the quarter, or otherwise it would charge you for each operation you took… including received wires. Note that this is a daily minimum and not an average-over-the-quarter, like the equivalent would be in Italy. And goes without saying that it’s a no-interests account, so you need to put some money “to sleep” to avoid being charged through the nose.

The last account I settled on was an Ulster Bank premium service account at €36/month. It actually paid for itself in terms of a lot less time spent dealing with straightening things out (after a horrible situation with KBC, I really wanted someone that could do that stuff for me). And it came with a secondary Sterling account (via Ulster Bank Northern Ireland — I still have that account!), as well as a savings account and credit card.

Thankfully, Ireland abandoned the country-limited bank card system called Laser before I immigrated, in favour of using more standard Visa Debit cards. With the exception of KBC that, as far as I know, was the only issuer of MasterCard Debit bank cards. A number of other non-bank services issued MasterCard Debit cards: Revolut, Curve, and An Post’s money exchange services — the latter being ironic given that An Post was the only place I knew of that did not accept MasterCard Debit cards, only Visa Debit.

As far as I know, none of the big banks issue bank cards that have fees to take money out of a non-bank-owned ATM, to the point that I never bothered to go anywhere else but the two Spar supermarkets around my place, when I needed cash.

Direct debit is the norm, although some system of postal payment is still present, and a number of bills would have the details printed on the bottom. Ironically, it’s because of that, that once I leaked my own credit card number. Overall, the Irish banking system appears to me fairly straightforward, with most payment being executed electronically, and widespread card acceptance.

An interesting note about direct debits is that, despite nominally being part of the SEPA Direct Debit Core system, they appear to be vastly region-locked. I had to threaten Tesco Bank (before they sold their business to AvantCard) to bring it up with the regulator when they refused to let me direct debit an account with a non-Irish IBAN, and Ulster Bank (Ireland) didn’t budge even then. A few of the utilities, also, appear to still be unable to change the direct debit dynamicall: you instead choose how much you want to pay, and then they will issue you a statement to show how much in credit/debit you are.

What I would say is still Ireland’s biggest problem when it comes to banking is the lack of competition. It’s the reason why Revolut actually works well there: there is no high-street competition and those who are used to different level of service will go straight to FinTech offers. My impression is that the reason for the lack of competition is that it relates to the way folks stick to the bank their parents used, something that I have encountered in Italy a lot as well.


I nearly titled this section United Kingdom, but then I realized that there are a few things that don’t quite work the same way throughout the country. Which is something that became very apparent when I transfered from Dublin to London: in the Workday interface, when it asked me for a “UK bank account”, I provided an Ulster Bank (NI) account number, and that had me wait for another two weeks (with a roundtrip to payroll to change my account on file), because Northern Irish bank accounts are not compatible with most English payment systems, it appears.

On the bright side, the competition between banks is fierce, although there are a number of “branded” accounts that consumers don’t always notice are operated by the same institution. There are also free-by-mandate bank accounts made available by a number of well-known banks, although that is becoming an increasingly limited space.

In my experience, this is one of the most consumer-friendly banking system, with payments between accounts, whether private or business, being free or nearly free, and direct debits being ubiquitous. The best of all is that so-called “Faster Payments” transfers appear on the credited accounts nearly instantaneously, in a matter of minutes if not seconds, without any surcharge. Italy does have similar fast payments, but in their case, it usually comes at an additional cost.

Otherwise, the English system looks a lot like the Irish one, at least for now. Bank cards are issued usually on the VISA network, although I know of at least one bank issuing Mastercard debit cards. More recent ones stopped providing the embossed digits for the fully-offline usage, which is fair as the only place that I saw using those in the past few years has been a hotel in Tokyo.

Credit cards are an intersting story here. They are not expensive, honestly, but they are very, shall we say, selective. If you just moved into the country, you’re not going to get a credit card for a number of months, which is again similar to Ireland, although I did manage to get one relatively fast with American Express (which, of course, is not cheap by itself). Once you’re allowed to get a card, the price of it is usually recovered by cashback. Or you may choose to get one of the cards that cost nothing but don’t get a cashback at all. Personally, I decided to get two cards: Santander’s with generic cashback, and Amazon’s (by NewDay) with Amazon-only, points-based cashback; the former is paid back by the regular payments we have on it, and the latter was free, and adds up a few scores of pounds a year.

Compared to the time I spent there, the one thing that England appears to have that Ireland missed (and, as far as I know, so does Northern Ireland), is the concept of “retailer offers”. For those unaware of these, many banks include “selected offers” with their bank accounts or credit cards, which you usually need to explicitly opt into. The way you do that, is usually through their normal mobile banking app (or website), although I think a couple of banks have separate apps for those.

These offers are usually in the form of anything between 2% and 10% cashback for purchases over a certain amount up to a maximum. Depending on the bank, these are offered either in actual cash, additional “points”, or separate “rewards balance”. This is where things get interesting and complicated, because you end up having to keep in mind which card/account has a certain offer, and you end up then deciding which one to use to pay at a certain place depending on that.

To make the calculation more complicated, the rules are also different between these. My bank (Santander) has a single set of offers on the account, which applies to debit and credit cards alike. And if the offer is for “one-time”, it is consumed as soon as either me or my wife use the card for an eligible transaction. On the other hand, American Express applies the offers on the card, so both of us need to check our app for valid offers, and one-time offers can be used once per card (very useful for offers that instead of a percentage, give you back a fixed amount, like the yearly “Shop Small” week — fun fact: in the beforetimes, it confused a lot of waiters when we would decide to split the bill, particularly when our wedding rings are clearly visible). But at the same time, the banks’ offers can be combined with Airtime Rewards, so you win some, lose some.

Direct debits are another area that includes some calculation space, and some similarities with Ireland. The number of utilities using fixed direct debits is significantly lower, but it’s not entirely uncommon either. On the other hand, a few banks (including Santander) do apply cashback to (certain) direct debits. Or they may decide to give you perks as long as you have direct debits set up. This provides a gameable system: particularly when accounts suggest you can get perks as long as you have two direct debits, you can take a look at your periodic payments and, if they do allow PayPal, you can use then turn a periodic payment into a direct debit. For instance, you may have Spotify and Netflix as those direct debits.

My short version of an impression of the English banking system is of one that is perfect if you are a fan of strategy games or RPGs where you can spend a day just calculating the possible weapon/armor/enhancement combos. You can then decide to squeeze all possible combining offers, get the best exchange rate for each purchase, and so on. If you are not into these trickeries and calculations, well, you can still get a pretty much no frills account and be happy knowing that they are not really mugging you of a lot of money.

What is possibly the most annoying thing, is that the security of logging into the online banking options is fairly horrible. England (and Ireland too) is the home of “Please give us your 3rd, 7th, 38th character of your password” requests, which are horrible security theatre, and add nothing in terms of security, since transparent phishing proxies are not uncommon at all.

United States

For this country, I only have a passing knowledge of the banking system, since I have never lived there proper, but I do have a bank account, so I have experienced some of the workflows, and I can compare notes with a few people I know that have lived there.

The first thing everybody will tell you about US banking system, is that it still heavily relies on paper cheques. Yes, the same cheques that had the main spotlight in movies such as Catch Me If You Can (which in my opinion is a great movie, by the way). What has changed since the time of that movie is that there’s a lot of “virtual process” around cheques in the USA, something that I don’t think other countries have done, for good or bad.

So for instance, I have received myself a few US cheques (mostly as rebates for goods I bought in the USA); to cash them I didn’t have to wait for my next trip to the country: my bank (Chase) allows me to scan the cheques front and back with their mobile phone app and they consider that good enough that I don’t have to present the original to any one at all. I could literally take the cheques and frame them, if they had an emotional meaning for me (they don’t, and I didn’t). And I’m told that on the other hand, you can ask your bank to print out a cheque for you via their online banking, and they will post it out for you just fine. I’m sometimes scared by this strange paradox of still using cheques, but beside being reminded of the William Gibson quote («The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed»), I can only shake my head and thank the luck that “my” banking system doesn’t require me to deal with this.

Electronic payment in stores appear to be also unevenly distributed. While I had no issue with paying by card in most places I’ve been to, in either California, Pittsburgh, or New York, there appears to be still a lot of services that are cash only. One of them, ironically, in Mountain View: Dana Street Coffee Roaster serves really good coffee, but I don’t usually keep cash at hand (except if I’m going to The New Mongolian Barbeque), which is why I usually just hang out at Red Rock unless I’m with a local.

There is also the elephant in the room, that only recently the United States have introduced chip-and-pin for points of sale around the country, and the last time I was there, a lot of them still didn’t support it. The reason for that appears to be related to the way point of sale devices are handled in the USA, where a lot of vendors actually bought the terminals, rather than renting them from a bank or payment processor. This is unlike Europe, where as far as I know, most banks will sign you up as a customers and provide you a leased terminal, which they take responsibility for updating and replacing as needed, which allowed the deployment of new technologies such as chip cards (with either PIN or signature) and NFC payments in a much shorter order than across the pond.

Payments, particularly consumer to consumer, are a mess. The whole concept of direct bank transfers is not something you can consider in the USA, with wire transfers costing $25 at both ends of the transaction (depending on banks and other rules). This may give a bit of context on why Silicon Valley appears to want to reinvent payments every year, with new methods to “attach money” through all kind of messaging platforms, and why people still attach themselves at the idea of bitcoin solving problems related to instantaneous transfers among peers.

On the other hand, online banking systems appear to be a lot more sensible when it comes to login security than European banks. Chase even supports proper password managers in their login both on the website and on the mobile app, which is unheard of in the countries I lived in here in Europe. And they even will use email for OTP rather than the silly SMS. It also appears that retailer offers exist in the USA as well. Chase is always trying to sell me a Dropbox subscription, with a 15% off (and TurboTax, although I don’t actually owe taxes in the US so that would not be particularly useful).


This is by no means a complete and detailed comparisons of all these banking systems. It is most definitely biased and partial, particularly given, as I said, I have not lived in the United States, but only experience it as a passerby.

I have not covered the different credit score systems of these countries (among other things because I do not have a credit score in the USA at all), nor I have talked about how to get loan or mortgages (the latter of which, I never tried getting anyway). All of these are extremely important components of a banking system and they, more than the services to consumers, should be considered when debating its health.

I just find this particular field interesting, and I think that reading more about other countries banking systems might get people to pay more attention to the horrible technological solutions they come up with. Nobody cares about cryptocurrencies for money transmission in Europe because SEPA means you can transfer money for fees that are pretty much nothing by comparison with your average crypto transaction. Noone had more than a passing interest in “attaching money to Gmail” outside of the USA.

I honestly open that in the future I’ll get to know more banking systems. It would mean indeed moving again, but I think it would be interesting to see different parts of the world, too.

I’m moving… to London

There is something about me and writing blog posts while sitting in airport lounges around the globe, or at the very least in New York and Paris…

Four years and change after I announced my first move I’m moving again, though this time the jump is significantly shorter, and even the downsizing is downsized, particularly as the plug I’d be using is the same. You could say this is a bold move, particularly with the ghost of Brexit floating above us as a semi-transparent Damocle’s Sword, but it’s a decision I made, not over night, but through many months of deliberation and a good number of arguments back and forth. And I decided this before the hilarious hung parlament results.

So, why am I doing this move, and what does it actually include? I’m staying at the same company, in the same role and in a team not really far away (on a management, if not service, chain) from the one I was at before. What really matters in all of this is the place I live in, rather than the work I’m doing. Work provided an excuse and a spark for me to make the jump, simply because my previous team has been folded into another.

When I flew onto Dublin, for the second time after the interview, four years ago, I knew next to nothing about Ireland, except for the stereotypes and the worrying stories of the Troubles. I effectively knew only one person in the country, and I was fairly scared about the whole process, which went significantly smoother than I would have expected. As a friend of mine told me before I left, Dublin is the capital that still feels like a little town, and I can definitely see that.

I grew up in a relatively small town, with next to no public transport, but a significant amount of malls and stores, and a stupid but functional airport nearby. Dublin beat that significantly, except for the lack of malls, and the fact that unless you have a car to go outside the city centre, it is likely that whatever you need you’ll order on Amazon anyway. Except there is no Amazon Ireland, so you’ll be looking at either Amazon UK, Italy, Germany or (if you can manage) France. Because the prices will be different all over, and some of the Amazon stores will refuse to send things to you in Ireland, and you have to use one of the many services that provide you with an UK address, and then reships the parcel to you (most of which use addresses in Northern Ireland, because it’s close enough, and counts as UK for most of those limitation).

But it also has limitations that a small provincial town has, and I’m not talking about the song from Beauty and the Beast, though it does come close. At least for the native Irish, the stereotypes is that they all know each other. It is not true of course, as it’s a stereotype, but it comes awfully close. In particular, according to a former manager, Irish people make friends in two phases in life: during school and during their kids’ school years. If you happen to get to Ireland when you’re clearly too old to be a student, but single, with no kids (and no intention to have any), making friends is not quite easy.

I have tried, maybe not with just as much energy as others have, but still tried. Unfortunately, almost the full set of social gatherings in Ireland involve pubs. I don’t drink alcohol, alcohol could kill me, and definitely makes me mean. But I could go to a pub and not drink of course. I did that in Italy, where the pub favourite by my group of friends offered as many pages of menu to coffee, chocolate, the and infusions drinks as of beers, plus a good selection of other desserts. That is not the case in Ireland. Effectively, the only non-alcoholic drinks you find at the pub are there to not live thirsty the designated drivers, and they are bloody expensive. €5 for a 150ml bottle of Diet Coke! — I’m told that Coca Cola by the pint is cheaper, unfortunately because of diabetes that would be almost as bad as alcohol. I know at least one pub in which I can order a pot of tea, and not get the stink eye by the waiters, but that’s about it.

For the first couple of years I didn’t really feel this being a big problem: for the first few months, Enrico (from #gentoo-it) was around as well, before moving on with his life in a different country, I made a number of friends at the office, and a few people who I knew before, such as Stefano from automake, came to Dublin. Then something happened, that made me question the idea of mixing colleagues and friends. Nothing Earth-shattering, but enough of a demonstration for me that I started isolating myself from most of the people at the office: rejected invitations for social events, mass de-friended people from Facebook, and so on. You may think this sounds a bit extreme, but I have my reasons.

I turned again to trying to find interesting groups of people in Ireland, and that’s where the introvert and awkward part of me just gave up and filled me with dread: I’m not particularly good with meeting people already, but it just felt too much work to join an established group of people who all know each other without even having one person you know to introduce you. I had better luck on that with meeting people at Eastercon and Nine Worlds, thanks to Gianni. And all the groups I could find in Dublin that didn’t have to do with “going out for pints”, were effectively groups of people who have known each other for years. They may be friendly but not easy to make friends, at least not for me.

Of course there is a group of people that I knew already, and I considered: the people who left the office! Unfortunately, almost the full amount of people who I knew that stayed in Ireland did so because they have a family there. They are in a different “time of life” than me, and that makes for an awkward time — most wouldn’t be interested in meeting to go to a geek store on the weekend, or a Comicon or similar venue. You can go and see them at home (depending on how friendly the terms you’re in are), and see the kids. Heh, no thanks.

So after four years, a lot of the people I knew and was/am friend with leaving Ireland for other countries, offices or jobs, I found myself lonely, and with a need to move somewhere else. And just to be clear, loneliness is not just about being single. That is obviously a part of it, but it’s in general the inability to say to any group of friends “Let’s meet tonight for movies, boardgames or a match of Street Fighter” (or whatever beat ‘em up the cool kids play nowadays). I could do that in Italy, I even still managed to do that in Italy last time I flew in, with some of my best friends now living together and expecting a baby. But I can’t do that in Dublin because there are very few people with who this proposition is not totally awkward.

Heck, I can do that in Paris! I have friends in France who I just had to say “There is this concert at this date, want to go?” and six months later I’m flying a DUB-CDG/CDG-YUL/YUL-DUB ticket to see Joe Hisaishi at Le Palais des Congrés. (Montréal is for a conference, it was the week after so it was easy to just go from one to the other without passing by Dublin.)

But most of this awkwardness is on me, so why do I expect things to be any different in London? Well, to begin with I know more people there (outside of work) than I did in Dublin, or that I even do now. A friend of mine from junior high moved to London last year with her boyfriend, so at the last I know them, and we’re close enough that the similar proposition of spending an evening in playing Scrabble is totally feasible (actually, we did just that when I went to see them last year). And these are people who can make the general awkwardness of entering a new group of people easier for me.

Most importantly, though, I think London has a different structure that should make it possible for me to end up meeting people even randomly. Because though I am clearly awkward and scared of joining big groups that already know each other, I don’t mind the random words with a stranger in the queue for a flight or while waiting for coffee. After all that’s give or take how I end up meeting people at conferences. In London there are just too many people for them to all know each other. And in particular, there are the places where these things can happen.

Part of the reason why almost all the social gatherings in Dublin revolve around pubs is that they are the only venue you can go to spend some time on “neutral grounds” (i.e. not in someone’s home, not at an office). I don’t know of a coffee shop in Dublin that is open after 1900 on a weekday, except for the Starbucks in front of St Stephen Green and a few Insomnias that are embedded within 24hrs convenience stores. London has plenty, although they are not all in the most convenient of places, if anything you can find a Nero open until 2200 almost every other corner. No, Nero does not stay open that much in Dublin either.

There is more. If you’re a geek you probably have at least heard of Forbidden Planet. It’s a megastore of comics, manga, books, and anything geek effectively. It’s very commercial and mainstream, but it’s also big and they run book signings there, which makes it an interesting place to go just to see if something may be going on. It’s effectively in the centre of life if London, effectively in SoHo, and if you meet there with friends you can geek out with friends on their latest purchases in one of the many cafes around the area. Or browse, buy something and go to dinner.

There is a Forbidden Planet in Dublin which is not as big but it still has a decent selection. Unfortunately all the venues around it are effectively pubs, as you’re on the verge of Temple Bar, which appears to be the Irish national treasure. Unless you manage to get out well before 5pm and get coffee to the shop just behind it, which of course closes at 5pm all week long. And even to be fair and consider Sub City comics which in my opinion is usually better stocked, it’s all pubs around it except for Bewley’s and Krüst down the street in front of it… which requires you to cross one of the most trafficked streets in Dublin city centre.

I’m not saying that there is an absolute certainty that I will meet people in London, I’m just saying that there are a few things that are not stacked against me, like they are in Dublin. And I really need to make some change that I don’t feel full of dread every time I come back to my apartment after weeks travelling, like I did coming back from my recent trip across Asia, when all of the four people I hang out with at all were not in town.

Nothing else really changes even, but you may notice that the targets of my rants will change from Ireland to UK, and possibly to the process of actually moving, filing taxes and so on. Actually, I know you’ll get at least another post on payment cards because I started looking into them and it looks like the foreign transaction fees in the UK are really bad.


This past weekend I had the honor of hosting the VideoLAN Dev Days 2014 in Dublin, in the headquarters of my employer. This is the first time I organize a conference (or rather help organize it, Audrey and our staff did most of the heavy lifting), and I made a number of mistakes, but I think I can learn from them and be better the next time I’ll try something like this.

Photo credit: me

Organizing an event in Dublin has some interesting and not-obvious drawbacks, one of which is the need for a proper visa for people who reside in Europe but are not EEA citizens, thanks to the fact that Ireland is not part of Schengen. I was expecting at least UK residents not to need any scrutiny, but Derek proved me wrong as he had to get an (easy) visa at entrance.

Getting just shy of a hundred people in a city like Dublin, which is by far not a metropolis like Paris or London would be is an interesting exercise, yes we had the space for the conference itself, but finding hotels and restaurants for the amount of people became tricky. A very positive shout out is due to Yamamori Sushi that hosted the whole of us without a fixed menu and without a hitch.

As usual, meeting in person with the people you work with in open source is a perfect way to improve collaboration — knowing how people behave face to face makes it easier to understand their behaviour online, which is especially useful if the attitudes can be a bit grating online. And given that many people, including me, are known as proponent of Troll-Driven Development – or Rant-Driven Development given that people like Anon, redditors and 4channers have given an even worse connotation to Troll – it’s really a requirement, if you are really interested to be part of the community.

This time around, I was even able to stop myself from gathering too much swag! I decided not to pick up a hoodie, and leave it to people who would actually use it, although I did pick up a Gandi VLC shirt. I hope I’ll be able to do that at LISA as I’m bound there too, and last year I came back with way too many shirts and other swag.

The revenge of the loyalty card

I’m interrupting my series about diabetes to take a moment to look into the way Tesco beat EuroSpar’s craziness for what concerns UTF-8 handling in my surname.

So to cut down the time I spend getting my groceries, a couple of months ago I started ordering online from Tesco and get it delivered to my apartment. It’s nice because they have quite a wider selection for some things than the EuroSpars and for some things at least, better quality.

In particular, Italian-style plain tomato sauce costs a third if not less at Tesco compared to EuroSpar — let alone more boutique style places like Fresh or Il Valentino!

When I registered, they asked if I had a Clubcard already (their loyalty card) which I didn’t have, and so they said that one was on its way to me. After a month ordering from them without receiving the card, and with the delivery receipts not listing any points at all. I called them and they apologized and said they would re-send me the card, fine. I received it the past week: I’m surprised An Post was able to actually deliver it, as it was addressed to R P Ego Elio Etten Di — I think the UTF-8 messed hard with their text processing. The card itself, got sent at name Mr D Petten.

I tried registering on the website with all possible combinations of name and address (yes the address was misspelled on the letter as well, Partment rather than Apartment), but no dice. Today I called them. And I think both me and the operator sweated heavily: first he asked me for my Clubcard number, I start giving it to him, and he tells me it’s wrong “It has to start with 634” “But mine starts with 400!”. Then he started asking me what’s the surname on the letter, and as you can guess above, I had no clue of what they recorded as surname. Then after some more repeating that what my name is does not match what’s on the card, I got them to actually set up me up with the correct name and address.

But I wanted to actually get to the website, so they said they would send me a link reset password. Instead, what I receive is my old password, in clear-text. I tell the operator “That’s not what should happens” “That’s what I got here”. I find “We take security very seriously” in the body of the email that contained the password laughingly. It’s interesting that this was reported over two years ago and is still not fixed. Lovely. I thank my colleague Brice for having shown me SuperGenPass so I can at least make sure not to compromise my usual safe passwords anymore.

Okay so I log in on the home delivery website for which I was obviously already registered, I connect, and I try to get the clubcard details, once again it asks me to enroll the card in my account. So the guy asks me if he should give me the number now… and I stay silent for a couple of beats. The number impressed on my card does not match the number the card should have! something messed it up and it was shifted a few digits left, with some extra digits added at the end. That’s why it did not start with the right digits. A new card is on its way to me, hopefully.

So the mere use of my real surname in their system was able to mess up their Cardclub handling so bad, that they ended up imprinting the wrong number on a card (not printed the way Decathlon does in Italy, this is actually creditcard-style embossing!), and sending it out.

On a different note to close the post, I published my glucometer tool and if you’ve got a different model or brand and want to write a driver for it, it’ll be very welcome.

My time abroad: Dublin tips

I’m actually writing this while “on vacation” in Italy (vacation being defined as in, I took days off work, but I’ve actually been writing thousands of words, between the blog, updates to Autotools Mythbuster and starting up a new project that will materialize in the future months), but I’ve been in Ireland for a few months already, and there are a few tips that I think might be useful for the next person moving to Dublin.

First of all, get a local SIM card. It’s easy and quick to get a prepay (top up) card. I actually ended up getting one from Three Ireland, for a very simple reason: their “Three like home” promotion allows me to use the card in Italy, the UK and a few more countries like if it was a local one. In particular, I’ve been using HSDPA connection with my Irish account while in Italy, without risking bankruptcy — the Three offer I got in Ireland is actually quite nice by itself: as long as I top up 20 euro per month, whether I spend it or keep it, they give me unlimited data (it shows up in my account as 2TB of data!). The same offer persists in Italy.

I’ve also found useful to get a pre-paid mobile hotspot device, for when guests happen to stop by: since it does not make sense for them to get an Irish SIM, I just hand them the small device and they connect their phone to that. When my sister came to visit, we were able to keep in touch via WhatsApp.. neither of us spent money with expensive international SMS, and she could use the maps even if I was not around. I decided to hedge my bets and I got a Vodafone hotspot; the device costed me €60, and came with a full month prepaid, I can then buy weekly packages when I get guests.

Technology-wise, I found that Dublin is surprisingly behind even compared to Italy: I could find no chainstores like Mediaworld or Mediamarkt, and I would suggest you avoid Maplin like a plague — I needed quickly two mickey-mouse cables with UK plugs, so I bought them there for a whopping €35 per cable… they are sold at €6 usually. I’ve been lucky at Peats (in Parnell Street) but it seems to be a very hit and miss on which employee is following you. Most of everything I ended up getting through Amazon — interestingly enough I got a mop (Mocio Vileda) through Amazon as well, because the local supermarkets in my area did no carry it, and the one I found it at (Dunnes in St Stephen Green) made it cumbersome to bring it back home; Amazon shipped it and I paid less for it.

Speaking of supermarkets, I got extremely lucky in my house hunting, and I live right in the middle of two EuroSpar — some of their prices are more similar to a convenience store than a supermarket, but they are not altogether too bad. I was able to find buckwheat flakes in their “healthy and gluten free” aisle, which I actually like (since I’m not a coeliac, I don’t usually try to eat gluten free — I just happen to dislike corn and rice flakes).

I also found out that ordering online at Tesco can actually save me money: it allows me to buy bigger boxes for things like detergents, as I don’t have to carry the heavy bags, and at the same time they tend to have enough offers to make up for the delivery charge of €4. Since they have a very neat mobile app (as well as website — they even ask you the level of JavaScript complexity you want to use, to switch to a more accessible website), I found that it’s convenient for me to prepare a basket over there, then drop by the EuroSpar to check for things that are cheaper over there (when I go there for coffee), and finally order it. For those who wonder why I still drop by the EuroSpar, as I said in a previous post they have an Insomnia coffee shop inside, which means I go there to have breakfast, or for a post-lunch coffee, whenever I’m not at work. Plus sometimes you need something right away and you don’t want to wait delivery, in which case I also go to there.

Anyway, more tips might follow at a later time, for the moment you have a few ideas of what I’m spending my time doing in Dublin…

My time abroad: loyalty cards part II — EuroSpar

My original post about loyalty cards missed the supermarkets that I’m actually using nowadays, because they are conveniently located just behind my building (for one) and right on the way back home from my office (for the other). Both of them are part of the EuroSpar chain and have the added convenience of being open respectively 247 and 7-22.

Mangled bill from EuroSpar

So, when I originally asked the store if they had any loyalty card, I was told they didn’t. I checked the website anyway and found the name of their loyalty program, which is “SuperEasy”, and the next time, I asked about it explicitly, and they gave me the card and a form to fill in; after filling almost all of it, I found that I could also do it online, so I trashed the paper form. They can’t get my name right anywhere here when I spell it.

On the website, strangely enough they even accept my surname as it should be, wow that’s a miracle, I thought… until I went to use the card at the shop and got back the bill that you see on the left. Yes that’s UTF-8 converted to some other 8-bit codepage which is not Latin-1. Indeed it reminds me of CP850 at the time of MS-DOS. Okay I give up, but the funniest part was getting the bill tonight, the one on the right.

The other mangled bill from EuroSpar

But beside them mangling my name in many different possible ways, is there anything that makes EuroSpar special enough for me to write a follow-up post on a topic that I don’t really care about or, honestly, have experience in? Yes of course. Compared with the various rewards I have been talking about last time, this seems to be mostly the same: one point per euro spent, and one cent per point redeemed.

The big difference here is that the points are accrued to the cent, rather than to the lower euro threshold! Not too shabby, considering that unlike Dunnes they do not round their prices to full euros most of the time. And the other one is that even though they have a single loyalty scheme for all the stores.. the cards are per-store, or so they proclaim. The two here are probably owned by the same person so they are actually linked and they work on each.

Another interesting point is that while both EuroSpar host an Insomnia café, neither accept Insomnia’s own loyalty card (ZapaTag) — instead they offer something similar in the sense that you get the 10th drink free. A similar offer is present at the regular Insomnia shops, but there, while you can combine the 10th drink offer with the ZapaTag points, you cannot combine it with other offers such as my usual coffee and brownie for €3,75 (the coffee alone is €3,25 while the brownie is €2,25)… at EuroSpar instead this is actually combinable, but of course if I use the free coffee while getting a brownie, I still have to pay almost as much as the coffee.. but sometimes I can skip on the pastry.

So yes, I think it was worth noting the differences about EuroSpar. And as a final note I’ll just say that even the pharmacy on the way to work has a loyalty card… and it’s the usual discount one, or as they call it “PayBack Card”. I have to see what Tesco does, but they somehow blacklisted my apartment in their delivery service.

Life in the new city

Okay so now it’s over a month I’ve been staying in Dublin, it’s actually over a month I’m at my new job, and it is shaping up as a very good new experience for me. But even more than the job, the new experiences come with having an apartment. Last year I was leaving within the office where I was working, and before that I’ve been living with my mother, so finally having a place of mine is a new world entirely. Well, I’ll admit it: only partially.

Even though I’ve been living with my mother, like the stereotype of Italian guys suggests, it’s not like I’ve bee a parasite. Indeed, I’ve been paying all the bills for the past four years, and still I’m paying them from here. I’ve also been doing my share of grocery shopping, cleaning and maintenance tasks, but at least I did avoid the washing machine most of the time. So yeah, it wasn’t a complete revolution for my life, but it was a partial one. So right now I do feel slightly worse for wear, especially because I had a very bad experience with the kitchen, which was not cleaned before I moved in.

Thankfully, Ikea exists everywhere. And their plastic mats for drawers and cabinets are a lifesaver. Too bad I already finished the roll and I’ve not completed half the kitchen yet. I think I’ll go back to Ikea in two weeks (not next week because my sister’s visiting). With this time I bought the same identical lamp three times. Originally in Italy, then again in Los Angeles, and now in Dublin — only difference is that the American version has a loop to be able to orient it, probably because health and safety does not require having enough common sense as to not touch the hot cone…

The end line is that I’m very happy about having moved to Dublin. I love the place, and I love the people. My new job is also quite interesting, even if not as open-source focused as my previous ones (which does not mean it is completely out of the way of open source anyway), and the colleagues are terrific… hey some even read my blog before, thanks guys!

While settling down took most of my time and left me no time to do real Gentoo contributions or blogging (luckily Sven seems to have taken my place on Planet Gentoo), things are getting much better (among others I finally have a desk in the apartment, and tomorrow I’m going to get a TV as well, which I know will boost my ability to keep the house clean — because it won’t require me to stick to the monitor to watch something). So expect more presence from me soon enough!

My time abroad: loyalty cards

Compared to most people around me now, and probably most of the people who read my blog, my life is not that extraordinary, in the terms of travel and moving around. I’ve been, after all, scared of planes for years, and it wasn’t until last year that I got out of the continent — in an year, though, I more than doubled the number of flights I’ve been on, with 18 last year, and more than doubled the number of countries I’ve been to, counting Luxembourg even though I only landed there and got on a bus to get back to Brussels after Alitalia screwed up.

On the other hand, compared to most of the people I know in Italy, I’ve been going around quite a bit, as I spent a considerable amount of time last year in Los Angeles, and I’ve now moved to Dublin, Ireland. And there are quite a few differences between these places and Italy. I’ve already written a bit about the differences I found during my time in the USA but this time I want to focus on something which is quite a triviality, but still is a remarkable difference between the three countries I got to know up to now. As the title suggest I’m referring to stores’ loyalty cards.

Interestingly enough, there was just this week an article on the Irish Times about the “privacy invasion” of loyalty cards.. I honestly don’t see it as big a deal as many others. Yes, they do profile your shopping habits. Yes, if you do not keep private the kind of offers they sent you, they might tell others something about you as well — the newspaper actually brought up the example of a father who discovered the pregnancy of the daughter because of the kind of coupons the supermarket was sending, based on her change of spending habits; I’m sorry but I cannot really feel bad about it. After all, absolute privacy and relevant offers are kinda at the opposite sides of a range.. and I’m usually happy enough when companies are relevant to me.

So of course stores want to know the habits of a single person, or of a single household, and for that they give you loyalty cards… but for you to use them, they have to give you something in return, don’t they? This is where the big difference on this topic appears clearly, if you look at the three countries:

  • in both Italy and Ireland, you get “points” with your shopping; in the USA, instead, the card gives you immediate discounts; I’m pretty sure that this gives not-really-regular-shoppers a good reason to get the card as well: you can easily save a few dollars on a single grocery run by getting the loyalty card at the till;
  • in Italy you redeem the points to get prizes – this works not so differently than with airlines after all – sometimes by adding a contribution, sometimes for free; in my experience the contribution is never worth it, so either you get something for free or just forget about it;
  • in Ireland I still haven’t seen a single prize system; instead they work with coupons: you get a certain amount of points each euro you spend (usually, one point per euro), and then when you get to a certain amount of points, they get a value (usually, one cent per point), and a coupon redeemable for the value is sent you.

Of course, the “European” method (only by contrast with American, since I don’t know what other countries do), is a real loyalty scheme: you need a critical mass of points for them to be useful, which means that you’ll try to get on the same store as much as you can. This is true for airlines as well, after all. On the other hand, people who shop occasionally are less likely to request the card at all, so even if there is some kind of data to be found in their shopping trends, they will be completely ignored by this kind of scheme.

I’m honestly not sure which method I prefer, at this point I still have one or two loyalty cards from my time in Los Angeles, and I’m now collecting a number of loyalty cards here in Dublin. Some are definitely a good choice for me, like the Insomnia card (I love getting coffee at a decent place where I can spend time to read, in the weekends), others, like Dunnes, make me wonder.. the distance from the supermarket to where I’m going to live is most likely offsetting the usefulness of their coupons compared to the (otherwise quite more expensive) Spar at the corner.

At any rate, I just want to write my take on the topic, which is definitely not of interest to most of you…

So there, I’m in Ireland

Just wanted to let everybody know that I’m in Ireland, as I landed at Dublin Airport on Saturday, and been roaming around the city for a few days now. Time looks like it’s running faster than usual, so I haven’t had much time to work on Gentoo stuff.

My current plan is to work, by the end of the week, on a testing VM as there’s an LVM2 bug that I owe Enrico to fix, and possibly work on the Autotools Mythbuster guide as well, there’s work to do there.

But today, I’m a bit too tired to keep going, it’s 11pm… I’ll doze off!

The pain of downsizing

So as I said before, I’m moving to Dublin. Indeed, I got my flight ticket, I’ll be leaving Italy for good on April 6th, 2013, hoping to return here only on vacation. From one point of view I”m sad because it means I won’t be seeing my friends as often as before — but on the other hand I’ll meet new people, and it’s true I often consider closer friends people I almost never see in my life.

But there are major pains as well, and they are only partially on a sentimental plane. One of the problems is that right now I have what we can define a very big house, with a big bedroom, study room, and a garage for storage, beside the obvious kitchen and living room. I still haven’t found a permanent place in Dublin, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to be as big. If it was the size of only one floor of my current house. I might find something closer to this later on, if I decide to buy a house on the outskirts of the city, rather than renting an apartment within the city itself — but for the moment I’ll go with the latter.

Over time, I accumulated in this place a whole bunch of mementos, some important some less, and I’m now trying to figure out what to bring with me, and what to trash (among the stuff that has no value, and thus that cannot be sold or given away). This also means fighting with my mother who would like for me to keep all the possible school material from my childhood — myself I would trash almost all of them, but there are other things that have sentimental value attached, for me, such as the old numbers of The Games Machine, and even I know that I shouldn’t be bringing them with me because they are pointless for everything beside taking a dive in a sea of memories.

By the way, if some FLOSS hacker wants a Sun ULTRA5, an AppleTV, or an ION-based computer without an harddrive, let me know. I might be able to set them up to be shipped around.

One of the biggest problems with the downsizing is the media: I have shelves and shelves of books, DVDs, CDs, and so on. Books, is not a big deal – I went electronic a few years back and I’m very happy with my Kindle Keyboard, the only books I bought in dead-tree format last year were the two I got signed while spending my time in Los Angeles – I only wish I had more friends capable of reading English around Mestre to give my English books away; my mother is also stopping me from giving away my Italian books. The big problems are with the reset of the media. CDs, I also have a limited selection, all original, as whenever I can I buy digital directly; the only genre I have a wide collection of, at this point, is metal, simply because the AAC encoding never seems to do it any favour.

DVDs are a mess because I have tons — entire TV series, and a long list of movies. I have left some of them in the TV cabinet for my mother to watch if she feels like it, mostly those that I already bought again in Bluray, but they are still physical and take space. Going digital with these, is harder, mostly because they are all DRMd one way or the other, and I have not found a single provider I can rely on: iTunes and Amazon Instant Video both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Interestingly enough the biggest pain seems to be in the plugs! Moving from Italy to Ireland means that my devices need to either change plugs or use adapters, as we use europlugs, Schuko and two Italian specific plugs while in Ireland they use the British plugs. Funnily enough, it turns out that a dozen devices I have the British plugs for; mostly thanks to buying lots of hardware from Amazon UK and the fact that a number of suppliers nowadays, including Dell and Western Digital, provide you with power adapters with a replaceable plug head, both europlug and British.

The bigger problem is bringing the kitchen appliances – my mother does not use most of them, I’m the only one who doesn’t leave them collect dust in the cupboards – as they almost all have Schuko connectors, but for that I think I’ll just use a single Italian powerstrip with a British plug at the end, similar to the one I’ve been using here (British powerstrip with Italian plug).

Really, can’t we just get a standard plug? Please?