sprout postcard keith cmyk light

Christmas Present Ideas

As the dust settles on Halloween, attentions now turn to Christmas, which is less than eight weeks away. 

For many people, the list of Christmas presents that you need to buy is getting longer each year. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for festive gifts, with varied levels of silliness.

*** A Personalised Poster ***

Brighten up the hallway, bedroom or office of your loved one with a personalised framed poster. Printed Gift Shop is an Amazon seller but you can save money if you go direct. At printedgiftshop.com you get free delivery and more framing options.

favourite song woodpenguins duckegg bk

Prices for framed items start at just £18 including UK delivery and there's also the option to have your own bespoke design for no extra cost.

*** Adopt A Sprout ***

A fun little stocking filler that emerged last year is Adopt A Sprout. The irony of sprouts at Christmas is that millions of them get eaten by people who don't even like eating them. What you get is a personalised certificate, a postcard from your chosen sprout and a Christmas card with envelope. All this is inside a shiny gold envelope which you can present to whoever you like as a novelty gift.

  

They even have a funny video appeal that explains the plight of these troubled vegetables.

Adopt a Sprout costs just £5 including UK delivery.

*** Coal from Santa ***

Another fun little novelty gift is a lump of coal from father Christmas. The myth goes that good boys and girls get what they want for Christmas, whereas naughty ones get a lump of coal. Not only do you (or the recipient of your choice) receive a box with coal inside, the appearance of the box looks far more inviting. There's even the option to have it giftwrapped!

 coal box 1 coal box wrapped coal box 2

This is a great little Secret Santa gift for less than £10. And still leaves enough for some chocolates to soften the blow!

 

fonejacker[4]

Charity Disparity

One of the best traits of the British character is our willingness to do our bit for charitable causes. Comic Relief, Children In Need and Live Aid are just a few household names in entertainment-based fundraising. Many retailers display collection tins on the counter and sometimes offer daffodils, poppies, wristbands or other adornments which enable us to display our charitable allegiances.

However, in recent years, the traditional forms of fundraising such as the lady rattling a collection jar and the sponsored silence are being taken over by more calculated methods.

The last decade or so has seen the introduction of the term ‘charity mugger’ (often shortened to ‘chugger’), to refer to those colourfully-tabarded youngsters who leap out at you on the high street or at an event to persuade you into signing up for regular payments. Single cash donations are not accepted, all they want is your personal details and a direct debit arrangement. The spontaneous and unsolicited nature of mugging is experienced by the donor in this scenario, but the financial hit that isn’t dwelled upon is faced by the beneficiary charity. All the parading and hectoring done by the chuggers is paid for out of your donations.

One excellent modern way to donate a set amount to a cause is by text message. We’ve all seen the adverts, a charity asks to send a text message to a premium rate number, and that premium is used as your donation. However, it appears increasingly impossible to just make a donation and get on with ones life.

This morning I responded to an Oxfam appeal by donating £5 by text message. Half an hour later (on a Sunday, I ask you) I was phoned up by a company, ostensibly requesting my details for Gift Aid; but in fact wanting to ask me why I donated, read a script about what Oxfam do, and ask for my email address so they can send me more info. This in effect turns a simple way of donating into a drawn out affair that may discourage me from doing so in the future. I had to interrupt the caller and declare that I didn’t need to know about how important the charity is, I just needed him to skip to the part where my donation becomes Gift Aided. Oxfam could have included a link in the confirmation text message which would have covered the Gift Aid details, so I must assume that my personal details are useful to this company in some other way.

My recent donation to Water Aid, on the other hand, was a simple affair. Go to a web site, pay via PayPal and fill in details for Gift Aid if you wish.

Sadly, I now know that if I make a text donation again, I face getting the third degree from a company whose trade involves exploiting the good nature of donors whilst risking the reputation of the charities.

Roll on November so I can just put a pound in a box and wear a Poppy without signing up to have my personal details pimped out.

union jack gingham roses

.uk is here

For years us Brits have had to bear the cumbersome burden of three extra characters in our local web addresses.

Our French neighbours have .fr, Germany has .de (Deutschland), but us poor United Kingdomers have had the much-less-snappy .co.uk as our domain suffix. The idea of having an identifier for local government (.gov.uk), education (.sch.uk, .ac.uk) and organisations (.org.uk) is a sound one, but it is much snappier to have the option of just .uk.

Well finally folks, the moment is here – .uk has arrived! Whilst millions of .co.uk addresses will still exist, those brands and site owners now have the ability to move to the new chic alias. In the next year or so we will see how many large companies and organisations will take advantage of this change. Probably the most apparent potential is for www.bbc.co.uk to become bbc.uk, which is so much more catchy, don’t you think?

One new brand to have embraced this arrangement from day 1 of opening their doors is t shirt shop PopWear. With some sites choosing to lose the www from the beginning of addresses, we now have the ability to live in an online world with less extraneous frill. PopWear’s angle on direct simplicity is aided by their url, a simple and snappy popwear.uk rather than www.popwear.co.uk, which would have opened up the potential for typos. We’ve all typed ww instead of www, or .couk or .co,uk, and a simple url lets you get straight to the end goal rather than dwelling on the keyboard.

A short and sweet url that says everything about an organisation is ideal for both the user and the site owner. As far as the user is concerned, http:// and www serve only to tell us that the site is on the Internet rather than any of the non-existent other places a website can be.

At the time of writing, Amazon is not reachable using the .uk suffix, nor are BBC and Ebay. Here’s hoping though, that this new TLD (top level domain) is adopted by the big boys soon.

Sausages_Oxford

PETA Out

As an animal lover it is naturally unpleasant to hear of cruelty or neglect of pets or livestock. As well as an animal lover, your esteemed writer is also a meat eater. I won’t bore you with the reminder that human beings are omnivores, although I sort of have now. I’ve also long been skeptical of Halal preparation, which seems to fly in the face of our excellent animal welfare legislation. This is something else we don’t have room for right now.

Many charities in Britain and around the world do great work rehoming and caring for abandoned and injured animals, and if I were wearing a hat I would take it off to them.  However, it is the fetishisation of abuse footage and the wildly unfeasible ‘solutions’ touted by the more bullish institutions that sadly cause more harm than good.

Two hens standing outdoors on the grass © RSPCA photolibrary

Unfortunately, it appears that the larger the organisation is, the more naive their crusade to change the world becomes. 100% of the pages I visited this morning on peta.org.uk (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) upheld very bad animal abuse, and instead of managing a solution to protect the animals, they are trying to get animal lovers to change what we eat and what we wear.

The article on sheep welfare cajoles the viewer to sign a petition against all wool production, needlessly naming Ralf Lauren as if to suggest that a leading retailer and designer that uses wool has blood on their hands. How about focusing our efforts on prosecuting the handful of scumbags who abuse animals, rather than trying to change the clothing industry?

As much as I admire the music and wit of Paul McCartney (I’m actually a big fan), and even respect his decision to omit significant food groups from his diet; I must differ with his assertion that veganism is good for animals.

Narrating a video of chickens and other livestock being actively abused as an accompaniment to the preparation of meat and dairy products, he suggests that we all become vegans. If thousands of us were to exclude meat and eggs from our diets, it would not stop the production of battery hens. By advising against meat and dairy consumption like this, we are effectively tarring honest and decent farmers with the same brush.

Have these people not heard of free range meat and dairy? We are much more likely to switch to a higher welfare grade (which Britain is moving ever closer to anyway) than vow never to enjoy a boiled egg again. British food safety and animal welfare standards are the best in the world, so please don’t feel guilty next time you buy that woolly scarf or free range chicken.

butter-596296_640

Subway – No butter?

Popping into a Subway used to be an oh-too-frequent guilty pleasure for your esteemed writer, as it is a short walk away from a former workplace. The customer is dazzled with the array of dressings, breads and salad options, which has hypnotised customers for several years.

butter2Upon visiting that same branch of Subway last week, I relished what had now become a rare treat. Bingo, the shop is empty of customers so I must have timed it just right. I ordered my favourite Italian BMT and had to relive the needlessly difficult decision of choosing a sauce.

It was at this stage that I suddenly thought: Hang on, where’s the butter? I’ve randomly picked the bread I want, even though I’m sure most people go for the easiest to say (Italian) or the one in the middle (Italian again I believe) whilst simultaneously regretting that they hadn’t chosen the one they actually wanted which was the Italian Herbs and Cheese. Just three additional words to turn a good sandwich into a great one.

All this choice of bread, sauce and salad, but are they accurately reflecting what us Brits actually want in a sandwich? I can’t speak for everyone, but I dare say most of us get some bread, butter it, put the main ingredient in and then grab some leaves. Possibly a bit of mayo. I routinely reject all the salad options because I believe all of them get in the way of the taste of the sandwich. Sweetcorn, Olives and Jalapenos are not normal for a British sarnie. Where is the rocket or bay leaves?

Perhaps Subway should do what McDonalds do so well; change their product offer to appeal to global tastes. Then we might actually get what we like!

Closed_Sign

retail fail

The internet is a truly wonderful thing and shopping is one of the many things it has revolutionised. However, sometimes you just need something now. It is those moments when the high street and out-of-town retail parks have a chance to claw back some power over the mighty web. It has occurred to me, however, that the physical retailers are now offering a wide choice of metaphorical nails to drive into their commercial coffins.

retail_rage11My example occurred on Monday 11th February 2013 and it is entitled I Need a Printer Cable.

On my way back from work I am in the Leamington Spa branch of Argos when, as planned, I decide to find a printer cable from the ‘laminated book of dreams’ (Bill Bailey, Bewilderbeast tour 2004). I have to set to one side the glaring imbalance that I would probably be paying about 4 times what I would pay on the internet, but hey; I have an expensive new printer and I want to use it NOW.

Tippy tap go my piano player’s fingers on the touch screen to check the stock of their cheapest cable. Out of stock. OK, I’ll have to get the unfeasibly more expensive one. 8.99 is too much for a printer cable but sod it i thought, I’m here now, let’s get this over with and start printing. Out of stock. Annoying. Off to Sainsburys I go. A new, large Sainsburys with an awfully-laid-out car park.

Parked up and ready to go, I dart straight for the electricals section, aware that it is likely to have been plonked on an aisle end or next to the batteries or something. Aha, printers. Printers, printers printers, they’ll have ink and cables around here somewhere… no? Becoming impatient, I break the male rule of shopping by asking a member of staff. “Do you sell printer cables”? “No we don’t”. It took a few seconds to process this. Anyone who’s bought a printer recently will have noticed that they don’t come with cables, so the natural thing to do when you sell printers is to hit the punter with an accessory sale. Alas, no. In this shop, you can buy a laptop and a printer but you won’t be able to connect the two.

There’s a Currys across the road, I had been there only the previous Friday when the model of printer I needed was sitting on the shelf covered in dust without a boxed, sellable version. Here’s a ‘digital connector cable’, but WTF I will not pay 18.99 for it. No sir. They have to have a cheaper one. £12.99? Still 1.5 times as much as the expensive one I saw in Argos.

The mind goes into map mode. Rugby has to be the best place to try next, they have a retail park that resembles a graveyard where people used to go to have fun (it has a cinema). There’s a small Maplin there. This will be my last attempt. I will walk out of this shop clutching a printer cable. Pulling into Junction One Retail Park, the signs at the road side are not lit up. They never seem to be. Perhaps it really is a graveyard.

There is one other car parked outside the shop, leading me to believe that it would just be me and the staff in there. I was right. shhhhoom, the automatic doors open and I make the world’s fastest scan of the store. Computing is where I head to. My peripheral vision detects an excited member of staff showing signs of wanting to engage with me, and i NEVER want to be approached by staff in a shop. A brief game of cat and mouse takes place, to avoid this needless exchange. Alas, the man in the shop fails to read my body language (Don’t forget I’m already pissed off by this point) and I have to swat away the words “you alright there?” before I’m allowed to look at what they are selling. Right, I’ve found a printer cable for less than £10 so I will buy it. Probably their best sale of the evening so far. On my way to the checkout I realise that the staff outnumber the clientele by 2:1. They clearly want to acknowledge that someone has entered the shop, so here’s their chance to shine. “Thank you” is my polite greeting, loaded with finality; as i hand over the item and produce my debit card. “Would you like a Maplin catalogue for £2?” I give a one word negative answer without the thank you. Blunt but clear. I am here to buy this cable and I don’t want to chat with you. I’ve only said a few words in my entire 5 minutes in the shop, but my mood could not be much clearer.

My card is hovering over the machine. “If you give me your postcode we can send you some Maplin vouchers…”

money_drain_1803331c

Sky high

I have made this argument lots of times, but I must keep on repeating it until the majority of my acquaintances have heard it at least once.

If you look at the main terrestrial TV networks in Britain, there are two basic models of operation. There is the BBC, which is fundamentally a subscription service; ie the license fee. Most of the license fee goes to the Beeb for their TV and radio programming. The other model is of course independent commercial content, funded by advertising.

However, satellite TV such as Sky exploit both income streams, and stretch the revenue so that the mugs who watch the content have a higher price on their heads.

It currently costs £145.50 for a TV license, which is about £12 per month. A basic subscription to Sky costs £20 per month, or £240 per year. Add sports and movies and you’re looking north of £672 per year.

My next argument is not easily quantifiable so I rely on others to back me up on this. The traditional 2-minute ad break has recently become more like 3 minutes, and on a terrestrial station you are likely to get 5 or 6 ads in the middle of a typical 30 minute programme slot. On satellite stations, however, you can expect about twice as many. Why should they get away with watering down the programming by extending the amount of ads?

So if you have a basic Sky TV package you are paying a premium AND having to sit through more adverts. £12 per month for award-winning British programming on a multimedia platform without adverts vs up to 5 times that for sports, imports and epic ad breaks. I know which one i prefer.

So next time you hear someone complaining about the license fee, give them a stern look.

cheque on the side of a cow

Reality Cheque

So after my completely unblogged-about car accident and subsequent claim(s) from the other driver’s policy, I yesterday had the joyous privilege of receiving a cheque from those nice people at Liverpool Victoria, or LV= as they call themselves these days.

I’ve got to give the nice new hire car back (again courtesy of LV) by Friday, and I’ve conveniently found another Focus within walking distance of home (thanks to the Pickerings and sorry for everyone who looks at Jarrad’s ad in next week’s Swift Flash, I have yoinked it).

The issue I have, ladies and Gentlemen, is that my funds came in the form of a cheque. I tend not to have four figure sums lying around in my account so I can’t pay for another car until it has cleared. Therefore today I had to drive out to the bank at lunchtime to pay it in, then spend about half an hour on the phone to HSBC applying for a temporary overdraft facility whilst the cheque ‘clears’. Then tomorrow I have to go back to the bank to withdraw £1400 cash to pay for the car.

Now here we are in the 21st Century, and the funds that were agreed last Friday will not be in my account, apparently, until over a week later. Cheque posted Friday, received Tuesday, banked Wednesday, then it’ll clear on Monday, or possibly Saturday.

Surely, if sending cheques through the post is somehow better than wiring it into my account, why not give the humble cheque a facelift so it has some kind of barcode or QR Code on it?

Every cheque has data on it, it’s basically instruction to a bank to transfer money from one account to another. So why can’t all that data be condensed into a scannable code?

I could have walked into my local branch of HSBC, they would use a simple scanning device, and my money would be cleared in a few minutes. The barcode would contain all the relevant data, and the branch who scans the cheque links it to my debit card (or cheque guarantee card, as they used to also call them). Bingo. There’s your instant cheque.

Sort it out, world

wpid-1327154955823.jpg

Halfords – We Fit

The other week when my tail light needed replacing, I took the lazy option and paid extra to have it fitted for me. Now this is the sort of thing that I would criticise of others, a bit like the McDonald’s Drive Thru which seems to be the height of laziness.

The time I had my tail light fitted was a damp, cold weekday evening, and the fitter was a strapping young man who seemed to know mid-sized hatchbacks like the back of his hand. He fitted it single handedly (although he had two hands and used them both, but there is sadly no such phrase as ‘ double handedly’), whilst also holding a torch. I stood for a few moments and he invited me to leave him to it and retreat to the relative warmth and sanctuary of my car. I politely declined, saying that I wanted to watch and learn.

Today, however, when I needed to replace an indicator, the strapping young man was nowhere to be seen. The cashier said “she’ll be with you in just a minute”, which did not make me feel particularly macho. When a young girl of certainly less than 21 years emerged and referred to me as ‘Sir’, I wondered if I could hide behind a facade of being a posh man with no time for such frivolity. Then I looked down at my scruffy trainers and baggy green corduroy and began to feel sufficiently low enough to walk under a bench with a top hat. I sat in the car listening to Chelsea vs Norwich on 5 Live whilst a girl fitted a bulb for me.

I’m now off to McDonald’s Drive Thru to get a burger for the journey home.

phone-hold-music-george-bush

Hold Music

Recently I have been sharing a common form of despair with my colleagues, that of being on hold to various companies. I generally quite like being on hold, as I know it gives the person dealing with my issue valuable thinking time, also it’s a nice opportunity to stare into space and get away with it whilst at work.

Christmas is a time for giving, sharing and all the rest of it. But in my line of work it is a time for helping the lovely general public with their gift-related quandaries. And hold music is something the customer has to endure (when i need thinking time) as much as I do. I’ll make my point absolutely clear now, that all hold music should be abolished and replaced with news headlines. Or Stephen Fry talking. Or the sound of rain on a tightly drawstrung cagoule hood.

Courier company Hermes (named after the Messenger of the Greek Gods) use a horrid saxophone-type muzak which is reminiscent of some pseudo-sensual chocolate advert from the 80s where some wide-eyed red-lipsticked brunette sinks into the sofa and tucks into the promoted confectionery whilst the long white silk curtains billow enviously in the background.

Incidentally, and I admit more appropriately, exactly the same hold music is used by Thorntons.

The high frequency of the lead sax (or perhaps generic horn) is so cutting that it is instantly apparent to much of the office that someone is on hold to Hermes, or in my case Thorntons. Minutes on end I sat today with the handset balancing on my right shoulder because I couldn’t bear the full brunt of the shrill brass monstrosity. Meanwhile the promise of one of their ‘chocolate advisers’ actually speaking to me on behalf of my customer grew less likely by the second.

The key point may be whether or not the call is indeed ‘important’ to them. If it was of genuine value or interest to them they would surely make the waiting experience a little more tolerable. Dentist waiting rooms have The Readers Digest, can’t we have BBC Radio 5 Live?

Thorntons of course, irritating in their apparent refusal to mark their centenery (Chocolate Heaven since 1911 anyone?) never did get round to helping me. So I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow morning.

P. Hurford 2011