Thursday, August 11, 2005

GF3 600 - 07 Low Road AdaptationDan has unintentionally coerced me into blogging.

His dissertation is about store-finders on websites. As he was confused by some of the conflicting results he was getting, he asked his readers to describe their use of store-finders in the hope of gaining insight.

I read his post. I read the comments. I start writing my own comment, and realised upon pasting it into Word to spellcheck, that's over a page long, which might be overdoing it for a comment.

So you get the amended version.

Personal uses of store finders.
- If there's a functioning bank in Lalaland.
- The address of a shop in Neverland.
- The opening times of the Nomansland branch.
- If there's an alternative to the one in Camberley (who the hell wants to go to Camberley?).
- If the shop in Pituitarygland does service X, or stocks product, or type of product, Y. It's amazing how many "don't do that here".

Information I provide in using storefinders
- Various parts of my home address, e.g. postcode, partial postcode, town or dialling code.
- Any other address I can lay my hands on. So friends' and relatives' addresses. Or even just borrow one from a business on the High Street (Google is handy like that).

The last action is usually in response to sites which insist on full valid* postcodes and only full valid postcodes. Often they demand seven characters or the postcode without a space in the middle or that every postcode must have a space. The sites usually do not say this until it returns an error message. I've even met some with a helpful limit of six characters (only for the very local people then?).

I know the companies see it as a cheap way to gather information on where there customers come from, but firstly it immensely pisses of quite a lot of the customers before they start (they spell out in big red letters "You are wrong", which is about as welcoming as the locked door with the small sign saying "Please use other door"). Secondly if the other customers are anything like me, they just nick a local address from elsewhere (and surely there can't be that many people living in one diving shop?).

And it does help if you can just type the name of the town, or even something like "Hove Station" and then be asked if I mean bus, railway or even lifeboat station. [Deviation: when will Gmaps do stations? It marks railways, but not any way of getting onto them]. However it gets even more annoying when they let you enter the name of the town, and then be informed that they've never heard of Swanage, and did I mean Swanwick, or would I like to find branches in Switzerland?

Another problem is as-the-crow-flies reckoning. I've been told to go to a branch on the Isle of Wight because it was 3 miles closer than a mainland shop. But I'm not sure how one teaches computers that there's something in the way, be it the Solent, Dartmoor, an army range or Heathrow, or simply a lack of decent roads or other infrastructure.

But I suspect I wouldn't be happy until the store-finder plans your route, issues live weather and traffic information and tells you where to park and how much parking costs (or where there is free parking on the road behind the car park). And it would nice if they gave information about when they usually get exceptionally busy and when they have lulls. Oh, and status reports on the staff so I know if my attempt to be charming is just going to be wasted on the surly assistant, so I needn't bother. As would providing the company position on refunds so I would know if I have to ramp up the persuasiveness or bile, or just wave the receipt and smile.

Vaguely related. Why are any public transport sites (TfL excepted) so uniformly crap? There's government run national journey planner thing (whose URL I strange haven't bothered remembering. Go Google, and if it's got bad graphics, paradoxical layout, atrophied interface and a slight lack of usability, then you've probably got it). The last time I tried using it, the site had great problems finding the start town. Eventually I found it (well, I found the name of bus stop in the town, but only got that through searching for a street name. Going well so far, isn't it?). I entered the destination very specifically. It got confused so I kept trying variants by leaving out different parts of the address. Despite the fact the destination has dedicated bus routes, the nearest bus stop it could find was a mile away.

Having selected both the start and end points, I commanded it to find me a route. I knew I could either walk-train-walk, walk-bus-walk, walk-train-bus, bus-bus, bus-walk-bus, bus-bus-bus, drive-bus-walk, or drive-walk (or cycle but that wasn't really an option). If I knew all this, they why look up the route? Because I didn't know departure, arrival nor total journey times, and I didn't know the costs.

The results came back. At the time I wanted to leave I had four options. The shortest was 6 hours and something like 42 minutes. I know public transport round here is dire, but...

Hang on, make that 3 days, six hours and 42 minutes. Er, something's not right here. I clicked on the details. Apparently I spend one night lying in a bus shelter in a Birmingham suburb, and the next in a station in Birmingham suburb. I can't find the third night. I don't live near Birmingham, and it wasn't really on the direct route.

I fiddle with all the options I can find. I keep hitting the find routes button. It's like a fruit machine. Most of the time it brings up junk, but sometimes something good comes back. Well not very good, and it did consistently produce different results with the same input data (how is that physically possible?).

Eventually it seems to settle down to journey times of between 2 hours and 4. I could walk it in that. It doesn't seem to know about some of the alternatives. It uses a different timetable to the one the local bus company claims to use (which doesn't match what their bus stops say. Obviously someone's been learning from National Rail Enquiries).

Eventually I did something it could not imagine, and drove (and then got on bus, then walked. I could have driven further and walked from there, but I would have had to endure gridlock every morning, plus parking was more expensive and filled up earlier).

But why are so many information systems so atrocious? If you're going to do something do it well; otherwise don't bother, as you'll only do more harm than good (if I'd obeyed the website either I would be convinced the journey is not possible, or I'd still be waiting for a non-existent bus).

Sorry, ranting/indulging in gross flights of fantasy in other people's comments on my own blog. Poor form. Won't happen again (too much).

Why is it in the comments but on a blog? Presumably it's something to do with the blog being on screen automatically, but the comments usually have to be opened.

And a prize to the person who guesses where the comment ends and the blog post begins (but not much of a prize).

Very pink sky.

Sorry, that was sort of meteorological Tourette's.


*By this I mean it will only accept BH19 1BT, rather than BH19 or a half-guessed BH19 1AA (although in some places 1AA exists, so it might work). [Up]

PS. It's not one sees a Newsnight interviewer lost for words. Kirsty Wark was interviewing Anjem Choudray, the former UK head of Al Mujahiroun, about Omar Bakri Mohammed, the man currently detained in Lebanon. She was asking about the clerics' comments that he would not report knowledge of a terrorist plot if it would implicate muslims [It's early on in the programme, about 9 minutes in, which can be seen until 22.30 tomorrow. Click Today's Programme on the right. I can't get a direct link].

Kirsty asked the spokesman for his personal views. He revealed that "It is not allowed for me to cooperate with the police. It is not allowed for me to cooperate with the government."

What if lives were at risk? Then he would work with his fellow muslims to prevent the killing of innocents (he didn't clarify who he classes as innocents).

Kirsty is a little stunned by this. She tries pointing out that the spokesman is a British Citizen. His response is that he doesn't see the connection. To him a British passport is just a travel document which allows him to come and go as he pleases.

My god (and I mean that in an entirely secular way). I'm ashamed to admit my immediate response was "well bugger off then". It's worrying when I fall into the Daily Mail stance of "Send them home", especially as I'm not sure whether they have another home. But how should one react to people who expect to work outside the law?
Normally those who choose to live outside the law either end up living strongly within the law in a rather small place, or they live so far outside the law they live beyond the realm of extradition treaties.

So which should it be? And yet it was only words.

Except there's something about those words which suggests they just don't get it. If man looks on British Citizenship as a glorified travelcard, then a large part of me responds that he shouldn't be allowed it until he knows what it means (but another part of me worries that I don't, which is also unsettling). But that makes it sound as if he is a child not to be trusted with the good china. To me, relegating the opponent to the status of a child is just insulting, and yet I just don't know what to do. Tell him not to be so silly, maybe?

I like you Anyhoo, I was grinning all through that commentary :)

You just gave me another opinion for my dissertation but also you were the first person to admit you used someones address other than your own, though Dave aluded to it as well.

As for Travel Direct, it's a great idea, but only if it works. I think I tried it once when it first started and had some problems and haven't been back since. Another of Government's IT projects failed, perhaps? I can understand why it's so difficult to get it all working efficiently, correctly and keep it up to date, having talked to the guy in charge of Manchester's component of it when working on my undergrad dissertation. In years to come these systems will improve though - it's just sad to see that they aren't living up to what they should be now. With corporations like Google going in, and much of the work already having been done by local governments and travel companies here in the UK, it can't be far off that we have a useful system that actually works. Oh, and people like me to help it along the way - assuming someone will employ me :)
If I was American I'd be saying "aw shucks" about now.

I like you too.

And I'm sure someone will employ you. If you get stuck you can always flash a smile at Ryan, (although I'm not sure what WellsFargo could do with you).
Amendment - The site I was referring to was, not I had no idea that the latter existed until just now, and have yet to use it (am trying at the moment, but all is not going well).
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