London

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.

Italy

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!

Ireland

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.

England

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).

Conclusions

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.

Moving Notes #2: Sigh, Agents

This is part two in a series. See the previous post for a bit more context.

When we embarked into this whole process, I had very little experience with moving and flathunting: I’ve lived in my mother’s house back in Italy, in Ireland I found an apartment fairly quickly thanks to a colleague “passing on” a viewing he didn’t need, and in London I found the flat through the relocation consultants that were assigned to me after the move. The same was true for my wife, who’s been mostly living in flatshares before.

And in the middle of a pandemic, the flathunting process seemed even more annoying, as it had a number of immediate and delayed effects. The first one was restricting our options in how far we wanted to move. While the whole situation meant that work is not expecting me back to the office for quite a while longer, and that meant we could have looked at options further away from London, such as Birmingham (which we had considered briefly before, particularly as I was looking for a new job earlier in the year), going and finding a place would still have involved a significant travel on mass transit (trains) and spending time in shared accommodation (hotel). Plus risking of being locked up there if a new lockdown was announced before we would have found a place.

So at the end of the day, we decided to focus in the same area in West London where we’ve been living. This had the non-negligible advantage of letting us keep the “support network” of friends we found here – most of them while playing Pokémon Go, of all things – and of sensible takeaways, shops, delivery services, …

It also had an effect that I hadn’t figured out when we started. As we knew that virtual viewings weren’t going to be particularly useful to gauge a new place, including the feeling of the area or neighbourhood, we had to take a difficult decision: as my health issues make me particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my wife would be taking the vast majority of the viewings. What we didn’t realize then, is that the real estate agents wouldn’t be able to drive her to the apartments they selected — and they totally failed to account for walking between different flats.

While she’s perfectly capable of walking miles, and she did – including hatching a number of Pokémon eggs! – when an agent books two flats that are 40 minutes walk apart to be viewed within 20 minutes of each other, you know that something is wrong. If something could have managed to make me more annoyed at car users who can’t figure out not everyone wants to be in a car all the time.

Eyes On The Prize

Before I start rambling on about the horrible services provided by most agencies I dealt with, let me explain what was that we have been looking for.

When we started the process, we weren’t sure we would leave the apartment. We were just informed that our landlord was trying to sell the apartment, and if he did we would have some time after the sale process starts to find a new place. Then again, as I did say in the previous part, we got to the point where the agency dropped so many balls, that we felt compelled to leave anyway.

And while the apartment we were living in was doing okay for us, beside the noise and the agency, there were a few things we were happy to change when moving. The flat we had been living was what I chose myself when I moved to London: a bachelor working at an office, with an occasional need to work from home, and with the far-fetched possibility of hosting guests for board games (only happened a handful of times in three years) and an even less likely chance of hosting friends visiting from abroad (I did technically have space to host one person sleeping over, but then turns out that living sandwiched between three hotels, it’s much easier to just let them have their own space).

As by then it was clear that for at least another year there wouldn’t be a commute to the office in my plans, it was clear that the office needed more space (particularly, storage space) and that it would be used nearly exclusively for working, rather than gaming. Turns out that after spending eight hours in the same room having meetings and writing docs, you don’t get to feel very good about sitting in the same chair and fire up a game, even one you like a lot.

What we definitely wanted was to keep Hyperoptic as ISP, or if that wouldn’t have been possible, at least have another gigabit fiber provider. It turns out to be very useful to not have to worry about my wife’s streaming lectures while I would be having a meeting. Plus the Hyperoptic support has been one of the best ones I’ve ever dealt with, and I know how annoying ISPs can be.

So our aim was, if possible, to find a three-bedroom flat – that way we could each have our home office, and we would have more space to “change the view” – with Hyperoptic. But we also would have been happy to settle for a more spacious, or more comfortable two-bedroom, particularly one where the master bedroom is not shaped like an S-tetromino like our previous flat.

It’s 2020, Learn Your ISPs!

I hate the words “unskilled labour”, because they fail to convey the importance of a variety of skills, but I would lie if I said I hadn’t chuckled at people calling real estate agents such in the past. The reason for it was that three years ago I had significantly different experience between the best and the worst agents I interacted with. This time wasn’t an improvement. But before I go on ranting, let me say that there’s plenty of skill in being a successful real estate agent — we could tell who was safe to deal with and who to run away from fairly quickly. So, kudos to the good ones, it’s not an easy job.

The first problem with pretty much all of the agencies (except one) has been that going through an aggregator such as Rightmove, they will ignore the details you provide in the contact form. I had explicitly sent a message stating that I’d like to book a viewing for the shown property, and possibly a selection of similar flats with Hyperoptic or similar level of connectivity. I also stated how I was busy with work and meetings, and wouldn’t be able to take phone calls easily, so email would be my preferred contact method.

Only one agency read the message and followed up on it. And turned out to be the most professional agent we have dealt with. So let me praise them: riverhomes and Tamir Gotfried in particular, did an exceptional job in taking in our requirements, and not wasting our time showing us unrelated or unsuitable flats. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a flat that fitted our requirements (Virgin Media being the best ISP they had available at that point — and I have personal reasons to sticking to Hyperoptic at least).

From nearly every other agent, we got the same type of excuses of not knowing what ISPs would be available — or not knowing how to check. Let me be clear here, I have no problem with checking that myself, but most of the agents refused to give the address of the flats they wanted to show us until the day, if not after the viewings. So instead of being given a list that we could pre-filter, they insisted in showing us a lot of flats that had vDSL as the best connectivity option.

Now, the Rightmove website (but at the time not their mobile app) had a drop-down from CompareTheMarket that shows the average speed available “at the postcode” — which for us would have been a good proxy, as we were looking for a flat in an apartment building, and buildings generally get their own postcodes. Unfortunately, most agencies lie out of their teeth on Rightmove (we’ll get back to that in a moment).

This is not particularly new. When I moved here, I had one agent insisting that a 25Mbit DSL line, that the landlord subscribed to the flat, and couldn’t be changed, was “fiber”. She wouldn’t accept my point that “That’s not fiber”. Sure the marketing material may call it “fiber-powered” or “SuperFast”, but it’s not fiber in any way shape or form. And in 2017 I expected an agent able to tell me whether a flat has floor heating or radiators should be able to tell me if a flat has DSL or fiber.

On the other hand, the agent that showed us the apartment we eventually rented said it had floor heating, while the only heating we have is heatpump based.

Do You Even Rent?

As I said, most agencies beside one ended up being a lost cause. Overall, the worst experience we had was with Foxtons — and it feels like we dodged a bullet of an agency worse than Dexters. But similar problems appeared with many.

Among the selections of flats we saw, with different agencies, there was one flat one floor up from a nursery, with the balcony overlooking into their back lot. We’re a childfree couple – as I noted talking about Sarah Millican as she makes us feel quite a bit more welcome than others – and that kind of flat would be a very bad fit. And, by the way, that’s an important part: if I did choose a flat knowing that there’s a nursery literally under my feet, and then complained about the noise, I would be a horrible person. Instead, I just want my peace and quiet and will avoid that location, stop.

Another flat had a thermostat (or possibly AC control unit) that was enclosed on all sides by the back wall of a “built-in” cabinet. With no separate sensor. It’s a great way to have basically no control over the heating in your bedroom, but the agent couldn’t even tell that this would be a problem. Maybe not even the landlord. As we saw a different flat in the same building with Foxtons, we also found that the built-in wardrobe was not part of the first flat at all — it was probably added to look like the flats in the upper floors, but for those, the thermostat is by the door, and outside of the cabinet.

Speaking of Foxtons, the first few options they showed us were not exactly what we were looking for. When they asked us our “approximate budget”, I gave them a bit of leeway in what to show us, and said there would be a bit of room to stretch. The stuff they showed us at first was well within the budget, even conservative I’d say… but smaller (and significantly so) than the place we were living in. So I explicitly pointed at one of their properties and said “Here’s more of what we’ve been looking for — this one seems well out of our budget right now, but if there’s any chance for it to drop by 10%, we’d be happy to stretch our budget to meet it.” And that kind-of helped.

Aside: the reason why I pointed at a flat outside of the budget and asked if it could come down is to apply a bit more of the techniques discussed by Getting More. We did our homework: we knew that the rent demanded for the property was on the high side of the market at that point, and we could tell the flat hadn’t moved in a number of months according to Rightmove. There was a chance that the 10% discount could still be lower than the loss in not finding anyone to rent the flat.

I say kind of, because the agent then did propose showing us a few more flats that, overall, did fit our needs a bit better — except that only the one we pointed at had Hyperoptic available. One of them was still tempting, and we were very disappointed by the lack of ISP options, given we knew the building right next door was Hyperoptic-ready, but it also was a “duplex” (which in this country means on two floors, but is a word that would confuse most Italians), and my wife was (reasonably) worried about me trying to go downstairs to grab sugars during a sugar low. I already nearly fell on the stairs during the visit.

But we did end up seeing the flat that we pointed at at first. It turned out to be even more spacious than the images shown, but it was also… dirty. I can’t use any other word, the wall over the cabinets was full of black spots that looked like mold, the extraction fans had dustbunnies visible inside, and in general it seemed to have quite the layer of grime all over, but that was partially understandable given that it still had tenants inside. We still put in an offer for a rent a bit higher than we were hoping for, but still in the “stretchable” part of the budget, and on the advice of the agent, we suggested a three years contract — the landlord was supposedly looking for someone to stay long term.

“I don’t feel comfortable renting from your agency”

After we put in the offer, the trouble started — the first call (from another agent at a different office) was to tell us that the landlord wouldn’t accept a three years contract, and requested a single year renewable contract. They also wouldn’t accept our first rent offer, and so they asked what would be our best for it. I did say we could go up £50/month but no more, but since that was enough they tried convincing me reminding me that I wouldn’t have to pay for heating — because that’s part of the service charge and so paid by the landlord. And according to them the law changed so that wouldn’t be possible to do anymore. It started smelling fishy, but then I relented, and accepted to raise up to £100 from our original offer.

The second call, informed us that the tenants of the time wouldn’t be leaving on the 1st of October as originally intended, so we wouldn’t be able to enter the property on the 15th as discussed. Instead the tenants would be leaving (hopefully) on the 1st of November. This is, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 related: the tenants were going to be flying back to their country, but the flights for October were cancelled, so hopefully they’d make it for November. I was back then sceptical, but I have not bothered checking if those flights reopened at all. That had us a bit worried, but since at that point we hadn’t given notice for the flat yet, we were okay to moving it to one more month later. Ensue call number three, asking us to move in on the 1st of November rather than 15th — despite the fact that our tenancy was terminating on the 26th, so the options would have been no overlap, or a much longer overlap than expected.

The fourth, but not final, call was to let us know that once the agents explained to the landlord that they wouldn’t be able to charge the hot water to us anymore, the landlord decided that our offer was not just too low, but even the advertised rent was too low! Indeed, they decided to ask more than 10% more money for the rent than originally advertised. We said we were no longer interested in the property, and thought we left it at that.

Yet another call, this time from the agent that showed us around had her just short of begging us to reconsider — saying that the rent would be “all bills inclusive, except council tax”. I said I wouldn’t trust it but we’d think on it, while I did the math. The only way that the increase in rent would be even covering the costs of bills would be if the heating would cost more than double what we were paying for the two bed (which sounded unlikely) and if they also paid for the same Hyperoptic service we had. But that also meant that we wouldn’t have control over the bills, which sounded very unlikely.

In particular, the thing they said about the hot water not being chargeable to the tenants was totally a lie. While the management company for the development (which is still the same for the old apartment, our current apartment, and the apartment we were discussing) did make things more complicated by not issuing separate hot water bills, hot water is counted as an utility and can be charged to the tenants. So, I really doubt that it was going to be “all bills included”.

Anyway, at that point we started looking further afield, and given we had done the math for the budget stretching, we started looking at slightly higher rents too, as options. That turned out to find other snags, which you can continue reading about afterwards, but also meant we found the flat we currently live in through another agency altogether. That agency, by the way, requires you to pay a deposit when you make an offer, which is only refundable if the offer is not accepted, and not if you withdraw the offer.

After that, the Foxtons agent who showed us around contacted us asking to show us three more flats, one in the same development, one across the street, and one… well, the last one we don’t know, because from the night before to the day we were supposed to see the flat, it was taken off the market. But this time, we were promised no more back-and-forths: the flats were managed from the same office as the agent, and her own manager would be the point of contact.

One of the flats was actually interesting. While the total square footage was not higher than the one we did end up renting, it was a three-bedrooms apartment — so smaller rooms, but with more space for privacy. And supposedly we could have had it for a bit less than we ended up renting (even considering the lost offer deposit). We considered it, and put in an offer with a couple of requirements (namely to remove the furniture that would be redundant to us, and to get the Hyperoptic socket installed — the flat was “ready” but the socket was never installed).

Then we got another one of those calls that we started dreading from them: the landlord appeared to have accepted the offer from another couple some time before with a different agency, but then some money didn’t change hands, and so it wasn’t clear if the place was officially rented or not. She would call us back by afternoon to confirm. We heard nothing until 8pm, by which time we sent an email pointing out that we weren’t interested in the property anymore, and that we would take an offer elsewhere.

The day after, the agent tried to call me (I was in a meeting, couldn’t pick up), texted me, spoke with my wife, texted her, trying to convince us to see a few more properties. I had to be rude and state explicitly that we wouldn’t feel comfortable to rent a property from Foxtons by that point, since two of the flats that we considered with them ended up having so much drama.

Agents, Lies, and Rightmove

Rightmove is probably the most commonly used website to look for housing, to rent or buy, in this country. It aggregates listings from any agency that would publish (I assume, for a fee), and provides a way to contact the agencies without exposing too much personal information up front.

Unfortunately, it’s also a nest of liars.

Since we have been looking for properties not too far from where we were living, we knew quite a bit about the area already. So when we would see a listing with a GPS point attached to one of the fancy, posh buildings of the development, but with the name referencing one of the older, still-to-be-fixed for cladding buildings, we knew we were made fun of.

Some of the listings are just slightly confusing. The flat we used to live in was advertised as having a “residents’ gym”, which turned out to be a half-truth: there’s a residents’ gym, and technically we could have gotten access to it, but as my wife went to check, the management company asked her to pay around £200. Turns out that being a resident is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Leaseholders do get free access by virtue of paying the service charge, but tenants need to pay separately. Except some tenants might have access already because the landlord already got the fob on the accesslist, and nobody is checking. Our fobs were not in the accesslist.

The same flat was advertised for sale (and still is at the time of writing) as having a concierge service. There is no concierge service for the building we lived in. I think it was meant to be there, as there is a strange door on the corner that looks like it could have been a concierge, but it wasn’t — only two buildings in the development have a concierge, and that was not one of them.

But the biggest lie is for properties that are not actually on the market at all! We found lots of those, and I complained to Rightmove about it. The first one we saw with Foxtons was from a building that’s still being finished, so they are releasing flats in “drops” — when my wife went there with the agent, the building’s concierge told them that they didn’t have any available flats to show. When we contacted another agency because of a very nice looking, spacious apartment down the road, we found out that it was not available at all.

Turns out that my complaints to Rightmove fell on deaf ears: according to them, even if a flat is already off the market because someone sighed up on it, the agencies are not required to take them off their site at all. They may mark it as “let agreed”, but they are not required to by their Terms of Service. The only moment when they are required to remove it from the site is when the new tenants move in.

So it seems like most agencies have incentive to sign up their best properties to be rented months before they are to be resided in, and keep them on Rightmove as a way to catch contacts. That way they will show you something else, which might not be what you’re looking for, but they might have more margins on.

Final Results

At the end we settled for a two bedrooms apartment, like we had before. We stretched our budget, I want to say, significantly, in part considering the likeliness to spend at least one year, possibly more, working from home, and so wanting to have a more comfortable living for the time being. We didn’t move very far — we literally are in the next building over, and the savings in doing the move mostly ourselves (more to that in a future most) probably made up for the first year of extra rent.

The agency we found the flat with was one of those with the trap listings, but they acted more professionally than Foxtons overall (again, there will be more to say about that), and we no longer have to deal with a property management agency.

But of course the trouble, or the annoyances, didn’t just disappear after finding a flat, so you’ll be able to read more notes and more trouble later on.

Moving Notes #1: The Reasons

As I noted when I took a break, this past October me and my wife moved out of the apartment I rented when I moved to London. The reasons of why we moved are a bit complicated, and not entirely connected with the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown. But more importantly, we learned a few lessons that, despite probably not being totally uncommon, I think might be worth writing about, just in case they can save time to someone else down the road.

So first of all, let’s make it clear that the main reason why we moved is that the property management agency that we have been dealing with (Dexters) was just so unprofessional that we couldn’t possibly salvage the relationship. I’ve had issues with them since I started renting here (you may remember I complained how they charged me for the costs that their bank attached to Fineco transfers), but usually they got solved, eventually. Unfortunately with the whole pandemic happening, they seem to have reduced the personnel to the point that their already oversubscribed agents couldn’t deal with issues reasonably anymore.

The year started badly with their finance department calling us three times in four months demanding we pay our hot water charges (the building we lived in has a “communal hot water system”, rather than an electric or gas heating system). This was caused by the property manager incorrectly adding the hot water charge as a monthly expense rather than a one-off — it was usually a one-off bill, but due to shenanigans with the development management company, this was also a six-months bill for once.

You would expect that it would be easy to reason with a human “Send us the bill, we’ll pay. Oh there’s no bill? Have a nice day, then.” But the folks from the finance department didn’t seem to understand such logic, and required us to argue with the property manager, who finally recognized we were overcharged (the first repeat we paid before arguing), supposedly credited us for it, and stopped the repeat. Except that at the end of March, right at the start of the new lockdown, they insisted on another payment, and I ended up spending six weeks arguing with the new “senior” property manager over those charges. Arguing that included at some point me printing out a copy of the statement she provided to me, taking a pen to enclose a couple of rows into a bright red box, scanning it and mailing it out, as a single line reply to “I don’t see any transaction for that amount on that date in the statement.”

But as bewildering this was, particularly with the dehumanizing experience of arguing with a finance office who is unable to accept the “no bill, no pay” concept, this was definitely not enough for us to decide to change apartment in the middle of a pandemic.

To add to the problem, we had not one, but two separate ventilation issues. One that we have been complaining for a while, and just became unacceptable during the lockdown, and one that was just unacceptable at any time: we spent nearly two months without extraction fans working in the bathrooms and the kitchen — getting instead the “reflux” of smells from someone else’s bathrooms (don’t ask how we know it’s bathrooms). The agency failed at dealing with either in time for them to leverage the constructor’s warranty.

After the first part of the lockdown, we also had to get installers in to replace the louvres on the windows — the original wood ones are no longer considered safe, and they had to replace them with metal. Which was fun, because they had to figure out how to open the second window, which we reported a year before as not opening, and needing to be fixed. The end result was a drilled out lock, which was not replaced up until we left. But hey, during the big heatwave we had both windows open, so we got that going on for us.

But the last drop for us was the last property manager we were assigned — as usual, neither he nor his predecessor informed us of a change as our agent. We found out about him after some new person asked us to book time for “pictures to be taken” for the apartment, which we thought was meant as the usual yearly inspection. No, it was a photographer coming to take pictures for marketing purposes so that they could advertise the flat to be sold on the market… except that we rented the flat unfurnished, and we were not going to agree to use the pictures of our furniture and art for marketing purposes.

Clearly the agency had no incentive to address our concern while trying to sell the flat, and at the same time we had to accept strangers coming into our apartment in the middle of a pandemic and sometimes not following health protocols either. We might have barked more than needed at the first agent that came with prospective buyers when she let herself in without knocking on the door!

So after a number of weeks and a few viewings, with the apartment not moving, the owner was satisfied to keep renting to us, but we weren’t satisfied to keep having that agency. We had already started looking around and found something we liked, prepared the paperwork and in parallel we gave notice in writing to the agency, and (with what in hindsight was a fortunate move) we reached out to our landlord via the only address we had, which was an accountancy firm.

It took two weeks for the agent at Dexters to realize we gave notice, and he spent another week pretty much ignoring it, and telling us “The problem with the ventilation will be fixed shortly [It wasn’t] so you can stay!”

You can imagine that things didn’t get much better after that. We had more people in and out of the apartment for the viewings, once the agent called us three minutes before the end of the slot they gave us for a viewing, saying they would be some more ten minutes late, expecting us to be play with it. I had a meeting coming up, so I told them in short order to not dare ringing us up at that point.

Indeed, after a few weeks of this, and with the extractions fan fix deadline lapsing twice, we told them not to come up with more viewings — yes that would have put us in breach of the tenancy agreement as they stipulate they’re allowed to enter your apartment in the last two months of tenancy, but given the failure on their part to provide a habitable flat we were getting miffed. The agent who called pretty much begged us to let them show the flat around — and failing being able to offer us anything for it, he promised a case of wine once the whole situation was over. You can imagine they didn’t keep their word.

As I said, in parallel we had reached out to our landlord. When I rented the apartment I was informed the landlord was overseas, and that we would not be in contact with him directly at all. And despite a couple of requests on our part to have his contact details, we still had no way to reach him except for the accountancy firm listed in the lease agreement. We hadn’t tried the firm before, because we were afraid we’d be complicating our position, by contacting someone who wouldn’t want to be contacted. Turned out that was not the case.

Indeed, once we got in touch with the landlord and explained the situation, showing the various communications and attempt at getting issues addressed, the situation became much more bearable to us. So win one for trying to talk to an actual human, rather than an inhuman company machinery.

The final cherry on top, was with the cleaning. As norm, we intended to have the flat professionally cleaned before moving out. Dexters suggests asking them for a recommended cleaner, so we did that, and we were given the name of a company that they usually asked to clean apartments to. We ask a quote, accept it, set up appointment for one day after we would have moved our stuff already… and then we found out that on the day we wouldn’t have water in the old building, so at last minute we had to push it out one more day.

On the day, my wife waited at the old flat, to no avail. She contacted the one person we spoke with, who apologized and would say he’d text when he would be available for the day after. Not hearing anything back for the day, we looked up another cleaner last minute, who accepted the job and confirmed availability for the day after. On that day, after the second cleaner was already through half of the flat, the first cleaner let himself in, with the keys to the apartment.

Dexters habitually hands out the keys to the flat they manage to their “known” contractors, without informing either tenants or landlords that the keys would be surrendered to a third party. The only “proof” they required was that we agreed to let the first cleaner clean the apartment, despite the fact that this was a communication between me and him, with no indication that Dexters would be asked to surrender the key. And according to the folks at Dexters, this is not a breach of the tenancy agreement (I wonder if anyone would be interested to try that out in court).

Of course, the agency wasn’t the only reason to leave. There were a few other issues that went beyond the control of agency and landlord, including one neighbouring family not accepting the idea that there might be people living next door that would like to have quiet evenings from time to time — I do totally understand the pain of being in lockdown, and how much it impacts families with kids, but when for two hours straight all we can hear is bam bam bam bam bam on the wall, and when bringing it up the only answer is “They’re kids, what can we do?”… well it’s too much for a civil engagement.

And at the same time, both towards the end of the first lockdown, and after it was originally lifted, the presence of short-term rentals in the building made life hard. We had one party that kept going until 3am. We had drunken people coming and going on our floor every other weekend. We had police coming to check the place, but it always came to nothing.

Even the building security was out of options — we were advised that they could only act and report on noise and nuisance that they could hear from the door, as they would be unable to enter the premises even if invited. The result was that for a few days we couldn’t go to bed before 1am, because the flat directly below us had kids that decided to play indoor soccer. Eventually I can only guess the estate office got bored of us keeping them up as much as we were.

So, with all of this mix going on, while already in the stressful situation of having started a new job, and learning yet another programming language, we decided to hunt for a new flat to rent. Which turned out to be a much more stressful process than I expected.

Google Maps: Spam and Scams

Last year I wrote an analysis of fishy ads on Facebook, among other things because I had no way to escalate the level of scam that I was getting, and I thought that it would be good for others to be able to follow the breadcrumbs to recognize that type of scams. Since this year I switched company, I find myself being unable to escalate the massive amount of scams and spam I see around me in Google Maps… so let me try to show you what I mean.

For the past two and a half years I’ve been living in West London — I’m not going to show exactly where, but it’s in Brentford. And when I moved into the apartment, I noticed that the various pictures I was taking at home (of food, the back of the router, and so on) kept popping up on my notifications with a suggestion by Google Maps to add them to a review of the building my apartment is in. The reason for that turned out to be that the building was marked as Lodging, which had it acting as a commercial accommodation, rather than a residential building. Oops, but why?

Well, turns out that it’s a smaller version of what’s going on in London and the rest of the world, and it became apparent a few months later, and very clear now. On our floor, there’s not one, but two “holiday rental” units — despite that being apparently against the leasehold agreement between the building and the owners. And indeed, both that company and another few appears to have tried taking over the Google Maps entities for the apartment buildings in our complex, and in a few of the nearby ones, particularly adding phone numbers for inquiries about the buildings — buildings that have no central phone number.

Let me try to show you how deep that rabbit hole is — on your right you can see “Pump House Crescent”, which is a road going around some tall apartment buildings not far from where we live. You can already notice that there’s a Green Dragon Estate that has a pink pin instead of the gray one — that’s because it’s currently marked up as a Lodge and it has reviews — probably for the same reason why I was prompted to add pictures from my own apartment. As far as I can tell, it’s actually part of the various blocks on the crescent, and instead holds residential apartments. I’ve sent an edit request.

When you zoom in a bit more, you can see interesting things. Turner House, Hyperion Tower, Cunningham House, Masson House, and Aitons House are all marked as either Apartment Building or Flat Complex, both of which are residential, and that’s correct. But then there’s Bridgeman House that is marked as Lodging — and that is likely wrong (edit sent and published as I’m typing, turns out Google Maps reviewers are very prompt to fix these issues when you report them).

But not far from it is the possible scam you can see on the left. 360 Serviced Apartments is even showing availability for a residential building — which they are not in. They provide their address as Masson House for Google Maps to put them there, but their actual company address according to their website is in London W5 — and the picture that they posted is quite a way away on the river, rather than where the pin is present. Can we call it scam? I think I will.

It doesn’t end here — there’s another similar scam across the road for another serviced apartment that even managed to put their website’s domain in the name of the point of interest! In this case there’s no picture of the outside, so it is possible that the inside pictures are actually appropriate — but again we’re talking about a residential building, in a residential area, that, as far as I can tell, is not cleared for subletting. Does it end here? Of course it does not.

In the gallery above you can see one of the most blatant scams that I could find on Maps in this area. As you can see from the first picture, down a lane from Kew Bridge station there’s an Apple Apartments Kew Bridge. Once you click on it, you can see that is reported as a 4-star hotel. With a picture of a station — except that the station is definitely not the National Rail Kew Bridge station, but rather the London Underground Hammersmith Station, which as any resident of West London would be able to tell you, is nowhere near Kew Bridge!

And as you scroll the gallery, you can see more pictures uploaded as if they were taken from the hotel, but they are clearly taken at different places. There’s pictures of Kew Bridge itself, as if you were able to see it from the place. And then you can see from the various reviews that this is not a 4-star hotel at all. Indeed, the star rating of UK hotels is defined by the AA, and for 4-star hotels they expect:

4 stars: Professional, uniformed staff respond to your needs or requests. Well-appointed public areas. The restaurant or dining room is open to residents and non-residents. Lunch is available in a designated eating area.

Let me remind you that it’s definitely a holiday let apartment that those “Apple Apartments” are.

I’m sure that all of these examples are not limited to Google Maps, as I remember being a “SuperUser” for FourSquare years ago, and having to review similar spam/scam situations, which is why I’ve been doing this on and off with Google Maps, both while working at Google and now. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s fair we, the public, end up having to clean up after this level of spam and abuse.

Anyway, if you live in an area that has lots of residential buildings, do take a look if there’s a lot of them marked Lodging, and that have phone numbers (particularly mobile numbers), and consider giving them a clear up if you can. It’s not just about removing scams for tourists, it’s also making sure that a residential area is not peppered with commercial corridors created by rule-bending (or rule-breaking) holiday let listings.

Environment and Software Freedom — Elitists Don’t Get It

I have previously complained loudly about “geek supremacists” and the overall elitist stance I have seen in Free Software, Open Source, and general tech circles. This shows up not just in a huge amount of “groupthink” that Free Software is always better, as well as in jokes that may sound funny at first, but are actually trying to exclude people (e.g. the whole “Unix chooses its friends” line).

There’s a similar attitude that I see around environmentalism today, and it makes me uneasy, particularly when it comes to “fight for the planet” as some people would put it. It’s not just me, I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere reporting similar concerns. One obvious case is the lack of thought given to inclusion and accessibility: whether it is a thorough attack of pre-peeled oranges with no consideration to those who are not able to hold a knife, or waste-shaming with the infamous waste jars (as an acquaintance reported, and I can confirm the same is true for me, would fill up in a fraction of the expected time just from medicine blisters).

Now the problem is that, while I have expressed my opinions about Free Software and activists a number of times in the past, I have no experience or expert opinion to write a good critique of environmentalist groups, which means I can only express my discomfort and leave it to someone else. Although I wrote about this in the past.

What I can provide some critique of, though, is an aspect that I recently noticed in my daily life, and for which I can report directly, at least for a little bit. And it goes back to the zero-waste topic I mentioned in passing above. I already said that the waste produced just by the daily pills I take (plus the insulin and my FreeStyle Libre sensors) goes beyond what some of the more active environmentalists consider appropriate. Medicine blisters, insulin pens, and the sensors’ applicators are all non-recyclable waste. This means that most of the encouragement to limit waste is unreachable for most people on medications.

The next thing I’m going to say is that waste reduction is expensive, and not inclusive of most people who don’t have a lot of spare disposable cash.

Want a quick example? Take hand wash refills. Most of the people I know use liquid soap, and they buy a new bottle, with a new pump, each time it finishes. Despite ceramic soap bottle being sold in most homeware stores, I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone I know using one. And even when my family used those for a little while, they almost always used a normal soap bottle with the pump. That’s clearly wasteful, so it’s not surprising that, particularly nowadays, there’s a lot of manufacturers providing refills — pouches, usually made with thinner, softer plastic, with a larger amount of soap, that you can use to either refill the original bottles, or to use with one of those “posh” ceramic bottles. Some of the copy on the those pouches explicitly state «These refill pouches use 75% less plastic per ml of product than a [brand] liquid handwash pump (300 ml), to help respect the environment.»

The problem with these refills, at least here in London, is that they are hard to come by, and only a few, expensive brands appear to provide them. For instance you can get refills for L’Occitane hand wash, but despite liking some of their products, at home we are not fond of their hand wash, particularly not at £36 a litre (okay, £32.4 with the recycling discount). Instead we ended up settling on Dove’s hand wash, which you can buy in most stores for £1 for the 250ml bottle (£4/litre). Dove does make refills and sell them, and at least in Germany, Amazon sells them for a lower per-litre price than the bottle. But those refills are not sold in the UK, and if you wanted to order them from overseas they would be more expensive (and definitely not particularly environmentally friendly).

If the refills are really making such a difference as the manufacturers insist they do, they should be made significantly more affordable. Indeed, in my opinion you shouldn’t be able to get the filled bottles alone at all, and they should rather be sold bundled with the refills themselves, at a higher per-liter price.

But price is clearly not the only problem — handwash is something that is subjected to personal taste a lot since our hands are with us all day long. People prefer no fragrance, or different fragrances. The fact that I can find the whopping total of two handwash refills in my usual local stores, that don’t cost more than the filled bottle is not particularly encouraging.

Soap is not the only the thing for which the “environmentally conscious” option is far from affordable. Recently, we stumbled across a store in Chiswick that sells spices, ingredients and household items plastic free, mostly without containers (bring your own, or buy it from them), and we decided to try it, easily since I’ve been saving up the glass containers from Nutella and the jams, and we had two clean ones at home for this.

This needs a bit more context: both me and my wife love spicy food in general, and in particular love mixing up a lot of different spices when making sauces or marinades, which means we have a fairly well stocked spice cupboard. And since we consume a lot of them, we have been restocking them with bags of spices rather than with new bottles (which is why we started cleaning and setting aside the glass jars), so the idea of finding a place where you can fill your own jar was fairly appealing to me. And while we did expect a bit of a price premium given the location (we were in Chiswick after all), it was worth a try.

Another caveat on all of this: the quality, choice and taste of ingredients are not obvious. They are, by definition, up to personal taste. Which means that doing a direct price-by-price comparison is not always possible. But at the same time, we do tend to like the quality of spices we find, so I think we’ve been fair when we boggled at the prices, and in particular at the prices fluctuation between different ingredients. So I ended up making a quick comparison table, based off the prices on their website, and the websites of Morrisons and Waitrose (because, let’s be honest, that’s probably the closest price comparison you want to make, as both options are clearly middle-to-upper class).

Price comparison between Source, Morrisons, Waitrose and the Schwartz brand spices. More accessible on Google Drive.
I’ve taken the cheapest priced option for all the searches, looking for bigger sizes.

If you look at the prices, you can see that, compared with the bottled spices, they are actually fairly competitive! I mean cumin costs over four times if you buy it in bottle at Waitrose, so getting it cheaper is definitely a steal… until you notice that Morrisons stocks a brand (Rajah) that is half the price. Indeed, Rajah appears to sell spices in big bags (100g or 400g), and at a significantly lower price than most of the other options. In personal taste, we love them.

A few exceptions do come to mind: sumac is not easy to find, and it’s actually cheaper at Source. Cayenne pepper is (unsurprisingly) cheaper than Waitrose, and not stocked at Morrisons at all, so we’ll probably pop by again to fill in a large jar of it. Coarse salt is cheaper, and even cheaper than the one I bought on Amazon, but I bought 3Kg two years ago and we still have one unopened bag.

The one part of the pictures that the prices don’t tell, of course, is the quality and the taste. I’ll be very honest and say that I personally dislike the Waitrose extra virgin olive oil I chose the price of (although it’s a decent oil); the Morrisons one is not the cheapest, but that one tasted nasty when I tried it, so I went for the one we actually usually buy. Since we ran out of oil at home, and we needed to buy some anyway, we are now using Source’s and, well, I do like it actually better than Morrisons, so we’ll probably stick to buying it, despite it being more expensive — it’s still within the realm of reasonable prices for good extra virgin olive oil. And they sell it in a refillable bottle, so next time we’ll use that one again.

Another thing that is very clear from the prices is just how much the “organic” label appears to weigh in on the cost of food. I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay four times the price for sunflower oil — and while it is true that I’m comparing the prices of a huge family bottle with that of a fill-your-own-bottle shop, which means you can get less of it at a time, and you pay for that convenience, it’s also one of the more easily stored groceries, so I think it’s fair enough.

And by the way, if you followed my twitter rant, I have good news. Also in Chiswick there’s a Borough Kitchen store, old good brick-and-mortar, and they had a 1L bottle for an acceptable £5.

So where does this whole rant get us? I think that the environment needs for activists to push for affordable efforts. It’s not useful if the zero-waste options are only available to the top 5%. I have a feeling that indeed for some of the better, environmentally aware options we’ll have to pay more. But that should not mean paying £5 for a litre of sunflower oil! We should make sure we can feed the people in the world, if you think that the world is worth saving, and do so in a reasonable way.

Before closing let me just point out the obvious: Source appears to have their heart in the right place with this effort. Having had my own business, I’m sure that the prices reflect the realities of renting a space just off Chiswick High Road, paying for the staff, the required services, the suppliers, and the hidden cost of families with children entering the store and letting their kids nibble on the candies and nuts straight out of the boxes (I’ve seen at least one while we were inside!), without paying or buying anything else.

What I fear we really need is this type of services to scale to the level of big high street grocery stores. Maybe with trade-in containers in place of bring-your-own for deliveries (which I would argue can be more environmentally-friendly than people having to take a car to go grocery shopping). But that’s something I can only hope for.

Revolut, as of October 2019

A few months ago I wrote a not-so-short comparison of a few FinTech services with offerings from high street banks in the UK — and I would note again, that the comparison does not hold up in Ireland, so it’s definitely biased, but I would uphold it for good reason. I think it might be time to do a bit more dusting over it.

The first service I should get back to talk about is Revolut, which I first praised and more recently complained about. As I said in a number of previous posts, my reasons to keep using Revolut for day-to-day transactions have pretty much disappeared: my Santander credit card gives me 0.5% cashback on all transactions, and no foreign transaction fee, why would I use Revolut? Virtual cards, and rotating-number cards are interesting and have their use, but honestly, I can’t be bothered unless it’s for very shady operations where I don’t trust giving my credit card, but those are pretty much corner cases.

Revolut has been running multiple advertising campaign throughout the London Tube, the most recent one promising three Tube trips free if you pay with Revolut. I could probably do that, next week, maybe, if I paid enough attention — I don’t use monthly tickets, so I can change card any Monday as long as I use it until the same until Sunday to cover the 7-day cap. But I had bad history with using Revolut on the TfL network before, although admittedly that was when I was landing from Dublin, and the location-based security tripped.

Update 2019-10-07: turns out I cannot actually use their TfL offer because it relies on Google Pay (which with Revolut I found already too unreliable to use for commuting) and only works if you have a Visa-issued card. My card is MasterCard-issued still.

If you check the news, the FT reported just this week how Revolut expects to reach “viability” despite continuing to lose money. This is likely because, as I pointed in my complain-post, Revolut makes perfect sense as long as you’re not paying anything for it. The only reason to sign up for any Premium or Metal tier in London (where most of their advertising budget appears to be spent, from what I read from news) is if you don’t understand the services available from the high street, or if you want to subsidize the free tier for everyone else. Funnily enough, FT Alphaville reported on the same day of the staff cashing it in.

I had to use Revolut only once in the past few months, and that was a couple of days ago. My sister asked me if I could send her some money for her to use the card, as her debit cards expired and she was trying to buy something — remember Italy does not have “faster payments” so inter-bank transfers are not instantaneous. It should be a simple operation: top-up £50, send £50 to my sister, she can convert to € and spend it.

Topping up worked like a charm. But sending the money didn’t: in addition to confirming my fingerprint, the app said it would send me an email, and to check the email from the same device to confirm the operation. The email can be re-sent only after one minute, but (as often) it recommends you to check your Junk or Spam folder too. The email never arrived. I don’t mean within a minute. I mean that this is two days later, the email has still not arrived yet.

No the mail server was not having a hiccup. Yes I did try resending it five minutes later. Yes I did check the Spam folder. No it’s not graylisting. My email address is served by G Suite, which means it’s more reliable than a normal Gmail address. Revolut can’t seem to be able to send email to Gmail. And it’s not just me. The same problem with email not arriving happened a number of months ago to my girlfriend, while sending money to my Revolut account! Anyway the answer is that I now have £50 that I can’t seem to be able to send to my sister, she ended up asking our mum for the transfer instead, and I have even less trust in the service.

I complained on Twitter about this, but without tagging in the Revolut account. When this happened to my girlfriend, and I ranted at them about it, they kept insisting to “check [my] spam folder”, which of course we did. If I asked now, I’m expecting to hear that “PSD2 made them do it”.

It’s sad, but I can’t really expect much better from a service that, despite a lot of nice ideas at the start, appear to have found a business model only to augment banks in places where high street has no offering (Ireland), or for people who can’t seem to know better (the whole Bitcoin/cryptocurrency part, that appears to be the sole attraction for Premium/Metal for quite a few people).

London, an Year and a Half Later

Given that nearly everything we hear, both here in the UK, and it appears everywhere else, is the stinking pile of burning rubbish that is Brexit, I thought I would bring at least a bit of positivity, by giving an update on my life in London, which I announced just shy of two years ago.

London has been a significant change of pace for me, both professionally (not always in a good way) and personally (almost all in a good way). I now live in a flat with my girlfriend, who’s the world to me. I have effectively stopped globetrotting, compared to Dublin — because I have so many things to do here, that were not available there. And I’m actually dedicating a forced 45 minutes a day to reading books (and another 45 are usually dedicated at reading the news), thanks to my higher-than-median commute.

As I said, the professional change of pace was not entirely positive. I ended up with a bad case of burnout between teams, and took two weeks of stress leave in February to “recenter myself”, which mostly involved me spending time on usbmon-tools, and a few kernel patches that (hopefully) I’ll be sending out this week. I am not entirely sure if this is due to a difference in the office environment, or in my own way to relate to the office itself. In Dublin I found there was more camaraderie, which might be caused by being a smaller office for my organisation, or the fact that so many of us lived in the same area that we spent a lot more time together outside of work too. As for myself, I find myself trying to put more explicit boundaries on how much I interact with my colleagues, even when I find them stimulating company.

On the personal level, the past two years (including the few months before the actual move) have been a roller-coaster ride, between the fear of change, my computer getting stolen, meeting my girlfriend, attending a number of concerts (not all, but most, metal), and getting photographed together with some of my most admired celebrities (I would put Simon Jones, John Lloyd, and Alexander Siddig as the top-three!)

And even when we didn’t go full-fan waiting over two hours to get a quick sketch of Spider-Man from John Romita, Jr, being able to go and see the Elves at No Such Thing as A Fish, or listen to Stephen Fry tell stories of ancient Greece all have had a very positive impact to my personal mental health.

And now that the rollercoaster is slowing down (and ending in a high note, at least on the personal side, ignoring Brexit), I think you may get more content from me. Because I have missed my blog tremendously, and migrating to WordPress was also a very good idea, as it allows me a lot more flexibility in writing.

Yesterday’s Disruptors, Today’s Encumbents

You know, I always found it annoying how online stores such as Amazon, or even IKEA, have been defined “disruptors” all these years. But nowadays I can mostly see how they changed the rules of the game, particularly in favour of the customers themselves, against their own workers, and suppliers. And so, nowadays, I can accept that they have been called that way for a reason.

Of course that’s not to say that I agree them being called that way still.

Since I have moved to London last year, I have been using both Amazon and IKEA shipping quite a bit, whether it is for the random bits and bobs (Amazon) or full blown household furniture (IKEA). It’s kind of needed sometimes, or at least very convenient, because you know there’s selection and (usually) good customer support.

But at the same time, things are no longer smooth as they used to be. Or maybe they are just as smooth, but we (I) got to expect better from them.

Let’s take IKEA: I wanted to order a number of items from them just last week: a garbage bin, a bedding set and some extra towels, as well as some spice jars. I put everything in my “bag”, and tried checking out. Somehow the PayPal integration failed, the loading page got stuck, and I tried restarting… and the site decided to lock my bag “for up to 45 minutes” because of the incomplete checkout.

I’m not sure how the locking is done and timed out, because an hour later it still didn’t let me order, despite logging out and back in. So I ended up going to Marks and Spencer’s website and order (more expensive) bedding set and towels from there. Alas their shipping option appears to be significantly worse as a track record (it got split into three deliveries, and only one made to my office’s mailroom by the expected date, but it was not urgent at all). But the checkout worked perfectly fine.

Unfortunately M&S didn’t have a bin, so I looked for one at Amazon and found something I liked for £25, so on Friday I ordered it with a “nominated day delivery” of Tuesday. That should be enough lead time, no? I also ordered a smaller trash container for the bathroom, to throw things like the non-sharps injection side-results.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when I took a day off work (because I needed to relax anyway), which I spent assembling the daybed I got from IKEA… a year ago (oops!) By 2pm I see that the smaller of the two bins is “Out for delivery”, but the bigger one (the one I really needed!) was not. Although with an expected delivery of the same day, between 7am and 10pm. I have immediately contacted Amazon on Twitter, pointing out the low likelihood of them delivery on the day, but they insisted that it was still going to be delivered.

Cue 4pm when I get an email (but obviously enough no Android push notification) that tells me that they are sorry, but a delay caused the delivery to be skipped on the day and that it would happen in a one-week window following it.

You read that right. They suggested that, for an item that was meant to delivered on October 2nd, and missed delivery, the new delivery window would be October 3rd to 9th. You can imagine just how happy, as a customer, I would be about that. So I called Amazon up, and asked them to cancel the delivery, because I already skipped a day of work (sure I was going to take the day off anyway, but I could have gone out to Kew Gardens instead of staying in to wait for them), and I wouldn’t want to spend an unbound amount of days home in the hope that they would be able to deliver a garbage bin. They confirmed it would be done and an email sent to me “within 24-48 hours” and I thanked them.

Then, I ordered a (different) bin on Argos. They actually had the same bin, but at £32. I didn’t need anything as fancy, and their lower end was actually much better looking than Amazon’s, so I settled for a £10 model. And for £3.95, they allow you to select a 3 hours delivery window — If I did that right when I realize the delivery would have been missed, Argos would have delivered the same day, instead I had to settle for the following day, Wednesday, between 7am and 10am. Indeed the day after, at at 7.20am, I was the happy owner of a cheap, simple garbage bin.

This is not the first time that, on Amazon’s failure, I redirected on Argos. And after this adventure, I think they’ll just be my first and default destination for anything that I want delivered at home (which is usually bulky stuff too uncomfortable to bring across London on the Piccadilly). The last time, it was a clothes iron and board, that somehow Amazon refused to do any nominated day delivery for. Argos was happy to deliver them on a Saturday morning intead. And practically speaking, a 7am-10am delivery weekday window means I can receive at any day, before heading to the office.

I wish that it all ended there, though.

On the same Wednesday that I received the Argos delivery, while at work, the Amazon app on my phone decided to notify me that the bin (the one that I asked to cancel the delivery of), was going to be delivered that day. I once again turned to Twitter where Amazon informed me that the request for cancellation might not have been reflected yet, and that they will not deliver if it was requested not to.

Except that at around 6pm, while I was commuting home, I also received another notification to tell me that the package was delivered. Checking this, it reported the package was delivered “to the resident” — except that my building requires a fob to access, and I was nowhere near home to let them in. So either they left it in the corridor (assuming someone else opened them the main door) or they left it outside altogether (in which case, it would be unlikely for it to stay around until I made it home).

Since the Amazon Android app allows you to contact them via chat, I did so, selecting the order with the bins, explain the situation, and explicitly talking about the nominated day delivery failure. At which point they confirm they would prepare a return request, and that they would organize for pick up. I also note with them that it’s a 40 litres bin, which makes the box very big and not something I’d bring to the post office myself. I also made sure to point out with them that, as I would not have an idea where they manage to leave the box without me, I would just leave it there, and let them pick it up the same way they left them. They confirmed all of this is okay, and after greetings disconnected the chat.

A few minutes later I get an email confirming the return request for… an unrelated set of bamboo spoons that arrived the same day. Not the one I was talking about, which would have been clear from both the bulk of the object we have been talking about, the delivery type, and the delivery address. And of course the price of the spoons was significantly lower than the bin. Sigh.

Another round of chat with Amazon, and they issued the return for the right item. They also told me not to worry about the pick up, and that I could keep the bin… which I don’t need anymore and would take a lot of space. I asked explicitly for a pick up anyway, and they agreed to organize it with Hermes. It was not until I got home and checked the email they sent me, that they expected me to print the return label — but I have no printer at home.

At least expecting Hermes to contact me, if anything to complain that they can’t access the building, I left the box in the hallway where they left it for the day after. Two days later, no pick up, no note, and no call later, I checked the status of the return to find out that they marked it as “completed”. While leaving the box with me. And I now have a fancy bin in the master bathroom, which is open to a good home in West London if someone were to want to deal with it (but probably not worth doing).

I’ll add a few more words about this later on, as Amazon in particular seems to be going the wrong way, for me at least.

Software systems and institutional xenophobia

I don’t usually write about politics, because there are people with more sophisticated opinions and knowledge out there, compared to me, playing at the easiest level, to quote John Scalzi, and rarely having to fear for my future (except for when it comes to health problems). But today I need to point out something that worries me a lot.

We live in a society that, for good or bad (and I think it’s mostly for good), is more and more tied to computer systems. This makes it very easy for computer experts of one kind or another (like me!) to find a job, particularly a good paying job. But at the same time it should give us responsibilities for what we do with our jobs.

I complained on Twitter how most of the credit card application forms here in the UK are effectively saying «F**k you, immigrant scum» by not allowing you to complete the application process if you have less than three years’ addresses in the UK. In the case of a form I tried today, even though the form allows you to specify an “Overseas address” as previous address, which allows you to select Ireland as a country, it still verifies the provided post code to UK standards, and refuses you to continue the process without it.

This is not the first such form. Indeed, I ended up getting an American Express credit card because they were the only financial institution that could be convinced to take me on as a customer, with just two months living in this country, and a full history of addresses for the previous five years and more. And even for them, it was a bit of an issue to find an online form that did indeed allow me to type that in.

Yet another of the credit card companies rejected my request because “[my] file is too thin” — despite being able to prove to them I’m currently employed full time with a very well paying company, and not expecting to change any time soon. This is nearly as bad as the NatWest employee that wanted my employer’s HR representative to tell them how long they expected me to live in the UK.

But it’s not just financial institutions, it’s just at any place where you provide information, and you may end up putting up limitations that, though obviously fine for your information might not be for someone else. Sign-up forms where putting a space in a name or surname field is an error. Data processing that expects all names to only have 7-bit ASCII encoding. Electoral registries where names are read either as Latin 1 or Latin 2.

All of these might be considered smaller data issues of nearsighted developers, but they also show how these can easily turn into real discrimination.

When systems that have no reason to discard your request on the basis of the previous address have a mistake that causes the postcode validation to trigger on the wrong format, you’re causing a disservice and possible harm to someone who might really just need a credit card to be able to travel safely.

When you force people to discard part of their name, you’re going to cause them disservice and harm when they will need a full history of what they did — I had that problem in Ireland, applying for a driving learner permit, not realising that the bills for Bord Gáis Energy wrote down my name wrong (using Elio as my surname).

The fact that my council appears to think that they need to use Latin-2 to encode names, suggests they may expect that their residents are all either English or Eastern European, which in turn leads to the idea of some level of segregation of them away from Italian, French or Irish, all of which depend on Latin-1 encodings instead.

The “funnies” in Ireland was a certain bank allowing you to sign up online with no problems… as long as you had a PPS (tax ID) issued before 2013 — after that year, a new format for the number was in use, and their website didn’t consider it valid. Of course, it’s effectively only immigrants who, in 2014, would be trying to open a bank account with such codes.

Could all of these situation be considered problems with incompetence? Possibly yes. Lots of people are incompetents, in our field. But it also means that there was no coverage for these not-so-corner cases in the validation. So it’s not just an incompetent programmer, it’s an incompetent programmer paired with an incompetent QA engineer. And an incompetent product manager. And an incompetent UX designer… that’s a lot of incompetence put together for a product.

Or the alternative is that there is a level of institutional xenophobia when it comes to software development. In the UK just as in Ireland, Italy and in the United States. The idea that the only information that are being tested are those that are explicitly known to the person doing the development is so minimalist as to be useless. You may as well not validate anything.

Not having anyone from the stakeholders to the developers and testers consider “Should a person from a different culture with different naming, addressing, or {whatever else} norms be able to use this?” (or worse, consider it and answering themselves “no”), is something I consider xenophobia¹.

I keep hearing calls to pledge ethics in the field of machine learning (“AI”) and data collection. But I have a feeling that those fields have much less impact on the “median” part of the population. Which is not to say you shouldn’t have ethical consideration in them at all. But rather than we should start with teaching ethics in everyday’s data processing too.

And if you’re looking for some harsh laugh after this mood-killing post, I recommend this article from The Register.

¹ Yes I’m explicitly not using the word “racism” here, because then people will focus on that, rather than the problem. A form does not look at the colour of your skin, but does look at whether you comply with its creators idea of what’s “right”.

UK Banking, Attempt 3: Tesco Bank (and the Irish credit card)

It feels like most of what I end up writing nowadays is my misadventures across a wide range of financial service companies. But here we go (I promise I’ll go back writing about reverse engineering Really Soon Now™).

The last post on this topic was my rant, about how Fineco lacks some basic tools to be used as sole, or primary bank account in the UK. Hopefully they will address this soon, and a sane bank will be available in this country, but for now I had to find alternatives.

Since the various Fintech companies also don’t provide the features I needed, I found myself having to find a “high street bank”. And since my experience up to this point both with Barclays and NatWest was not particularly positive, I decided to look for a different option. Since I have been a mostly-happy customer of Tesco Bank for nearly four years, I decided to give their UK service a try.

At first it appeared to have an online sign-up flow that looked sweet for this kind of problem… except at the end of it, they told me to wait for them to ask me for paperwork to send them through. Turns out the request was for proof of identity (which needs to be certified) and proof of address (which needs to be in original) — the letter and form I could swear is the same that they sent me when I applied for the Irish credit card, except the information is now correct (in Ireland, the Garda will not certify a passport copy, though it appears the UK police forces would).

Let’s ignore the fact that by mailing me at that address, Tesco Bank provided their own proof of address, and let’s focus instead on the fact that they do not accept online print outs, despite almost every service (and, as I found out now, themselves) defaulting to paperless bills and statements. I actually have had a number of bills being mailed to me, including from Hounslow Council, so I have a wide range of choices of what to provide them, but as it turns out, I like a challenge and having some fun with corner cases (particularly as I already solved the immediate need for a bank account by the time I looked into this, but that’s a story for another day).

Here is a part of the story I have not told yet. When I moved to the UK I expected to have to close every account I had still in Ireland, both because Ulster Bank Private is a bloody expensive service, and because at least in Italy I was told I was not entitled to keep credit cards open after I left the country. So as soon as I was in working order over here, I switched over all the billings to Revolut. Unfortunately I couldn’t do that for at least three services (Online.net, Vodafone Italy and Wind/3 Italy) — in two cases because they insist they do not accept anything but Italian cards, while somehow still accepting Tesco Ireland cards.

While trying to figure out an ad-interim solution I got to find out that Tesco Bank has no problem with me still having the “Irish” credit card, and they even allowed me to change the address (and phone number) on file to my new London one. We had some snag regarding the SEPA direct debit, but once I pointed out that they were suggesting breaching the SEPA directives, all was good and indeed the card is debited to the EUR Fineco account.

This also means i get that card’s statements to my London address. So of course I ended up sending, to Tesco Bank, as proof of address… a Tesco Bank Ireland credit card statement. As a way of saying “Do you feel silly enough, now?” to whoever had to manually verify my address and send the paperwork back to me. Turns out it worked just fine, and I got not even a passive aggressive note about it.

Now let’s put aside the registration and let’s take a look at the services provided. Because if I have to rant, I would like at least to rant with some information to others to make up their own mind.

First off, as I said, the first part of the registration is online, after which they get in touch with you to send them the proofs they need. It’s very nice that during the whole time, they “keep in touch” by SMS: they remind you to send the paperwork back, they tell you that the account was open before you receive the snail mail, and so on.

I got a lot of correspondence from Tesco Bank: in addition to the request of proofs, and the proofs being mailed back, I received a notification about the account being opened, the debit card PIN, and a “temporary access number” to sign up online. The debit card arrived separately and through a signature-required delivery. This is a first for me in the UK, as most other cards just got sent through normal mail — except for Fineco, as they used Fedex, and they let me receive it directly at the office, despite it not being the proof of address I sent them.

Once signing up for the online banking, they ask you for an 8-digits security code, a long(er) password, and a selection of verbal question/answers, that are the usual terrible security (so as usual I’ve answered them at random and noted down what I told them the answers were). They allow you to choose your username, but they suggest it to stay the email address on file.

The login for the first time from a different computer is extremely awkward: it starts with two digits of the security code, followed by a SMS second factor authentication, followed by the password (not a subset thereof, so you can use a password manager easily for this one), all through different forms. The same happens for the Mobile Banking application (which is at least linked directly from their website, and very easy to install). The mobile banking login appears to work fairly reliably (and you’ll see on the next post why I call this out explicitly).

I set up the rent standing order on this account, and it was a straightforward and painless process, which is the same as a one-time transaction, except for saying “I want to repeat this every month” checkbox. All in all, it looks to me like it’s a saner UI than Barclays, and proper enough for the needs I have. I will report back if there is anything particularly different from this that I find over time, of course.