Sunday, March 30, 2014

new cooker

The cooker was a legal requirement.  So many things are legal requirements in this country that it's impossible to keep track.  Even so I was surprised when I got a call the other day from a number unknown to me.  The man at the other end of the line inquired when the new cooker could be delivered.  I hadn't ordered one.

What I had was a gas safety inspection only days earlier.  The engineer, a slight but energetic woman in her late twenties, didn't waste much time on my flat.  She bounced up step ladders to check mains valves and ripped out the plasterboard behind which the boiler was leading its rather uneventful life.  It all took just a few minutes.  She set the pressure a notch higher – to make sure the hot water's always hot – and stuck her head into the oven.  When I demonstrated, after she had taken her head back out, that the flames of the grill won't stay on, she marked down my report, and that was that.

Next thing I knew was a new cooker waiting on my landing a week later, tall, white and still shrink-wrapped, its cardboard box in tatters around it.  It's a mystery how the thing made it up the tightly wound stairs.  For delivery and installation, rather ambitiously, a two-hour window had been scheduled.  As the original gas inspection had been half an hour late, I anticipated a similar delay.  But when I arrived home with a backpack full of work, the first part of the deal had already been done.  Drilling and hammering in the flat upstairs indicated that the installation part would not be long in coming either.  I propped open the door to my flat and started reading a paper.

Not much later, the gas engineer was back in my flat ripping the wrapping off the new cooker with one hand and the old cooker from its fittings in the kitchen wall with the other.  It was a sight of focused frenzy much at odds with what one usually associates with those occupied in various trades of home maintenance and improvement in this country.  Plumbers, builders and electricians are considered slow, careless and unreliable – unless they are foreign.  A Polish plumber is apparently the best you can get.

That point was, somewhat obliquely, illustrated when the old cooker was picked up a few days later, by a gang of three migrants whose leader wore a yarmulke and curly bangs down his temples.  My narrow mind places Jews into the high-tech industry of Tel Aviv or the fruit orchards of the occupied territories, but that's not the story.  The story is that when I told him to grab the cooker and pull it out of the flat instead of delicately dancing with it as he did, he refused in accented English, saying he didn't want to damage the carpet.

The engineer in my flat was English, but before I could get too worried about this, my attention was diverted to the cooker.  I had never heard of the brand and dismissed it outright.  A Chinese manufacturer in European guise, with a name I was sure the vice president for marketing had chosen for sounding vaguely Dutch.  To me it sounded pound shop.  I wouldn't give it a second look if it came up as an option on my favorite e-commerce site.  It turned out to be Slovenian, made in Europe, its purchase by the landlord an act of Continental patriotism.

The installation was finished before the allocated two hours were up.  When I had been made familiar with the safety features of the new cooker – the flame on the hob stays on only when the regulator knob is held down for a good ten seconds after ignition and a wobbly sheet of aluminum has to be wedged between door and oven when the grill is on – the gas engineer asked for hand broom and dust pan and went on her knees to sweep up the Styrofoam beads scattered throughout the hallway.

I had just got back from a trip.  The flat hadn't seen a vacuum in weeks.  I told her not to worry.  I'd take care of it on the weekend.  "Aren't you supposed to leave a mess behind?" I asked.  We argued back and forth playfully while she continued to clean, catching defiant foam fragments in mid-air.  "We were told to do it, even if the customer insists otherwise."  Even the best stereotypes are far from universally true.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day, my landlord sent me a letter inviting me to sign a new tenancy agreement.  Rent would be a few quid higher each week.  For the privilege I was asked to pay the same few quid as a one-off renewal fee.  This struck me as a bit over the top.

My rent is below average; I would stomach an increase without suffering too much indigestion.  Even with the new numbers, I'd be getting a good deal.  When I walk by estate agents, this plague of the high street that has overtaken pound shops in severity, flats similar to mine go by far higher amounts than what I pay.  How anyone in London can afford that is a question that won't be addressed in this post, but it's worth keeping in mind for anyone considering buying into this city.  There's only one way for prices to go, and it's down.

For the moment, all they do is go up, though.  The landlord has caught on and sees a chance of increasing his return.  There is no financial justification for this; it's pure greed.  Interest is so low that it's only a theoretical consideration.  The flat has benefited from no improvements at all over the last four years, all the while I've diligently increased the landlord's equity in the property, decreasing the principal and thus the interest paid each month on the mortgage.  I should be paying less, not more.

I understand that this reasoning does not fully reflect the reality of real-estate investing.  As I said above, I'd be quite willing to accept a small increase.  I'd pay it from next week without discussion if the landlord just asked politely.  What he does instead is get on my nerves about a new contract and about a contract renewal fee.  He sends me forms to fill in my personal details, banking and job information, and next of kin, as if I were a new applicant, not a tenant of four years.  What a waste of paper and time.  And even if there were the need for a new contract, which there isn't, a copy of the old one with a new number inserted would do just fine.  Nothing that would require a fee.

To battle what I couldn't agree with, I chose to engage in a passive aggressive confrontation.  Thanking him for his kind offer, I told the landlord that I was quite happy with the current tenancy agreement, and that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we just kept it as it was.  If there was anything that needed attention, it was  gas safety.

The gas I considered a stroke of brilliance.  By law, landlords have to have rental properties inspected by a Gas Safe registered engineer once a year.  This ensures that the boiler won't explode and the cooker set the kitchen aflame.  Such an inspection had taken place once, but it was many years ago.  Mentioning this would keep the landlord occupied for a while, I reasoned.  He's not evil, just incompetent.  The outcome I was shooting for was a delay of the new tenancy agreement so I'd save the renewal fee by paying lower rent for enough weeks.  A month or two was all I needed.

It worked brilliantly at first, and then it didn't work at all.  Or maybe it did.  The story is so hot that I haven't made up my mind yet.  What's clear so far is that the new cooker I got as a result of the gas inspection works better than the old one.  But I might not have much time to enjoy it.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

new clothes

The best operating system in the history of computing, by life span anyway, is about to be disowned by its maker.  In April, Microsoft will stop providing security updates for Windows XP, effectively pulling the plug on it.  Most people who use Windows XP don't know why, which is why they're still using it, almost thirteen years after it was introduced.  XP is a fine thing indeed.  But happy consumers (as in consumers happy with what they've purchased) aren't lucrative consumers, and thus Microsoft keeps flogging new versions of their OS.  They're always advertised as upgrades but turn out to be anything but.

My mom's Gateway (boxy cows anyone?) isn't quite as old as XP but almost.  I purchased it in desperation in 2004 when my Thinkpad went blank just days from dissertation deadline.  When the Thinkpad came back a few days later, happy as a bunny, the Gateway in turn looked old, but my mom looked happy when it was hers a few months later.  That was, a quick dive into arithmetic reveals, more than nine years ago.  The computer was never top of the range, and outside a larger hard drive, it never enjoyed an upgrade.  It just got slower and slower until even my mom, a rather modest consumer, spoke up and inquired whether ten minutes was normal for the web to start.

The new computer runs Windows 8.  No need to be timid, I thought.  The interface is radically different, but mom's gonna figure it out.  First I had to, though.  Here are my conclusions:

Windows 8 is rubbish, not for what it is but for what it isn't.  It isn't innovative where it counts, it isn't novel, and it isn't progress.  It's XP in new clothes, garish and ill-fitting.  The radically new interface is, depending on how you look at it, either a telephone GUI that's utterly unsuited to the operation of a large-screen laptop or a revival of Yahoo! Widgets.  In either case, it's a layer of obfuscation on top of the clarity people are used to.

The widgets are also not as you would expect them, nimble jiffies for specific tasks.  Most widgets are nothing more than data hoovers.  Navigating them feels a bit like walking down İstiklal Avenue with touts at every corner, trying to drag you into club or bar.  The widgets try to get you to sign up for a Microsoft ID.  They won't run if you don't sign in.  I spent an hour removing widgets and installing proper programs with the same name, Skype for example or Microsoft Mail, that work just fine.

Some widgets work without registration, maps for example or a little calculator.  Nice, I thought, as I opened them.  I use the Dashbord calculator on my MacBook a lot.  Then the Windows widget opens – in full-screen mode.  I didn't find out how to make them smaller, to see the content of other windows for example.  It's like being in the stone age, on a Mac II, before the invention of multitasking.  You can also not close the widgets, short of hitting Alt-F4.  Instead they populate hot corners and do things that make no sense.  More than once I couldn't help but exclaim "Ooops, what was that?"  Something had happened on the screen that I might have triggered, but I had no idea what was going on or why.

Besides widgets there are Windows programs – this is XP in fancy dress, after all – but they can't be launched from the Start button.  The simple reason?  There isn't one.  Imagine Windows without a start button.  How do you operate it?  Everything that matters is there.  The first major update reintroduced the Start button, but only as a pacifier.  It doesn't do what it's supposed to but takes you to the widgets.  They tell you whether the sun's shining outside your window but don't list the most frequently used applications.  Many programs show up among the widgets (duplicating what's already on the Desktop) but they're hidden among crap and stretch off the screen.  Firefox, freshly installed, was nowhere at all.

Windows 8 is a spectacularly misdirected effort.  There is no end to the inanities.  As there's no start button, there's no obvious way of shutting down the computer.  Digging around a bit, I found it, hiding in a menu called Settings in a mobile element called the Charms bar, unrelated to anything else in appearance and experience.  Adding fog and creating confusion seem to have been major driving forces during when the new interface was thrown together.  Who puts the power button inside Settings?  (Alt-F4 off the Desktop does the trick as well.)

Another idiocy is the startup screen, entirely superfluous.  It shows a cartoonish picture of the Space Needle and tells you the time, but it doesn't let you log on.  You have to click in the startup screen to be taken to the logon screen, and it is again opaqueness that distinguishes Windows 8 from Windows XP, not innovation.

After a weekend of tinkering, the computer was running fine.  It starts wicked fast and shuts down as if dropping dead.  Mom's pictures are in place and all the software she's used to as well.  Another ten years of happy computing have just begun.