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Computers…are they really worth the bother?

By now some readers will have noticed a tiny shift in the subject of the later stories (these are dated from 2002)

They're not my TRUE stories anymore they're my way of bringing to everyone's attention what we all have to put up with and suffer in silence!

Many are based on what I hear on Radio 4 in the mornings when only half awake.. It's got to the stage now where a government spokesman blamed Radio 4 Today Programme for the A level marking fiasco, recently whitewashed. The poor lady interviewer was quite taken aback and muttered something about "not shooting the messenger".


Computerised utility bills

As I review these paragraphs (sometime in 2000) there's been another scare announcement about soaring Council Rates Bills. What sickens me is that recently our Local Council scrapped all their computers and re-equipped with flat screen display types at what must have been a gi-normous cost. It was when these things were still extremely expensive, nearer £1000 than £100. Who pays for this?

Many years ago there used to be lots of jobs for people who could use pencil and paper.

Gas, electric, telephone bills and rates demands were simple things.

Our rates demand in Merseyside in 1969 said, on a piece of paper about 5 inches by 4 inches, "Rateable value £19, rates 11:7d in the pound, Rates payable £11:0:1d". I might add that this included water rates for which, in this area of the New Forest we now receive two sizeable extra bills.

Now, before I get a council rates bill I have to provide a set of annual accounts within a week, and usually after ten attempts a rate bill of astronomical proportions is agreed and paid. Accompanying each communication is a mountain of paper, some of it printed in many colours and lots of glossy brochures from departments demonstrating, typically by that very act, the amount of MY MONEY they are wasting.

The old bill was set out on a typewriter from figures produced by clerks with pencils and paper, and as calculators were rare and computers only used for detecting Russian planes, no doubt they were using charts full of numbers from which they picked out the appropriate amount to pay. I imagine it was all done in a minute or two, and bearing in mind there were about a million people living in the City of Liverpool a good many people earned their pay by using pencil and paper and typing bills.

I've started using my computer to check my utility bills and to attempt to work out whether a change to a different supplier will save money.

I can reveal to you that it is well nigh impossible to determine this unless you have a degree in mathematics (which incidentally I have) AND you own a fully operational crystal ball!

Take the electricity bill. I haven't had a meter reading for as long as I can remember. A computer somewhere decides how much I have used and sends me a bill. Sometimes the figure is so far from the mark I'd have to remortgage the house to pay it so I have to ring them and put them right. The utility companies are making money on the back of the consumer who invariably pays too much; the extra cash we pay attracts interest for the utility company. It's about as close to the definition of THEFT as makes no difference. "Intent to deprive", certainly has some substance in relation to a consumer's lost interest as the utility company will not countenance paying interest on the cash they have overcharged. (I wrote that last year... last week I got a letter from one of my suppliers saying they were paying some money, they'd taken through overcharging, into my bank! Maybe they read what I'd put and got a guilty conscience?)

No sooner do I figure out how I am being charged then the company works out a new method of billing me! The rolling account method of billing, coupled with perpetual "estimates" makes it incredibly difficult to work out just how much I'm actually paying for what I use.

I got the millionth phone call the other day from yet another utility company telling me how much I can save by switching to them, I respond by asking them to demonstrate how they can do this. They usually ask me from whom I get my gas or whatever. I respond with "If you don't already know how can you tell me you can save me money? I tell them "Southern Electric". "No.. who supplies your gas", they say. "Southern Electric I said". "Oh.. how much do you use per month?". "If you don't already know.. how can you tell me you can save me money I ask?"... and so it goes on. "How much do you charge for a cubic metre", I ask. "We sell gas by the kilowatt", is the response... "What's the calorific value of your gas", I ask... at this point the person usually gives up.

This time however the chap, who sounded more Croation than English, said his computer wasn't working and he couldn't tell me. I asked him what the rattling noise was while he was talking to me, if it wasn't a computer keyboard, and he pretended not to understand and said he'd ring me back. If he did he'd changed his job and was now selling double glazing!

Have you tried to understand your phone bill? The BT phone bill has to be seen to be believed! It's just about the worst designed and presented bill that's ever been devised in the history of mankind.

My phone bill, typically of April 1986, was about 5" by 5" and its content was as clear as could be, two meter readings, price per unit and a total .

However as soon as BT started fiddling with computers the bill (and no doubt BT as well!) started to grow in size and soon a third decimal place appeared, the word "Bill" became "politically incorrect", and was replaced in 1989 by a "Statement" attached to the bill. When this later word was dropped, for some time, no title appeared on the bill until the words "Telephone Account" popped up. The number of attached sheets started to grow in number, getting physically larger as time progressed until Jan 93 when the word "Statement" reappeared and all pages went to A4 in size. Now we get 5 pages of A4 including mysterious entries such as "Total Customer Option Charges £0.00". Minus signs are used willy nilly and the end result is absolutely useless in terms of understandability. Am I wrong but shouldn't "discount" be a positive number?

Since I penned the above BT have changed their bill yet again (in fact a year later as I re-read this a NEW new-style BT bill has arrived April 2003). It's much the same as before which was better but still hopeless. They've STILL got their plus and minus signs wrong. When it comes to presentation it's all very well having beautiful artwork but it costs money. Our money! The number of pages is still growing. The three decimal places of intricate detail may be of passing interest but I'm sure 99.99% of recipients could manage with just a single page summary sheet. Just think how many million pages are produced in a year! How many trees does that represent? How much colour ink and.... how many people employed to produce the end result!

Yet another try at getting their bills right! August 2003 and a little note accompanying the BT bill tells me that this time they've finally got it right! What they really mean is that they're increasing the size of the font of the money part of the bill and the main heading is increased in size even more. However... they are still using the nonsensical minus signs... My credit balance is minus £56.49. Do I owe them or do they owe me? What they call "benefits" are also minus signed. Get your act together BT! When I see that minus £84 has been deducted from my bill (sorry "statement"), my logic tells me that £84 has been added.

However... take a tip from me Mr.BT MD. You do not need to print your bills in colour. Plain old black will do nicely and would save pots of money. And five sides of paper surely would condense to a single sheet if you kept the typing smaller and information to the minimum. The increase in the amount of information you supply will eventually lead to you printing out my actual conversations. Do you realise that we do not need to see the costs down to a tenth of a penny! I can live without being told I accrued a benefit of minus 1.3 pennies when I spoke to my friend in Burley last month. And finally. Ordinary customers shouldn't have to bother with VAT. Prices should be inclusive, cutting down on printing and showing real figures.

At the time I left the Defence Industry there were more staff in the Finance Department than in the Engineering Department!

Another round of Council Tax bills... the one dated 14th May 2001 is totally wrong. The one dated 17th is OK but I had to ring them up to get it. Nothing important.. at least in terms of New Forest finances.. a mere error of £1,341.90 but to me quite serious. Do their staff ever check what they do? Clearly not from the evidence. How many people actually test their bills for accuracy? I suggest that everyone should do so! This time there are four separate envelopes containing loads of sheets of paper. All second class stamped for second class citizens. One asked for a document that I'd actually had photocopied by one of their staff. Have they mislaid this or will they blame their computer? This is the authority that changed over to flat-screen monitors when their retail price was £700 each.

Ending on an up-beat... our electricity bill is quite high, something like £100 per month (2003-2004) and our gas bill also as we cook with it and have gas central heating. One day I got a call from someone in New Delhi, I think it must have been as I could only vaguely understand what she was saying. It turned out that now I'm approaching the government age for retirement that not only can I get free cavity wall insulation, a new jacket for our hot water tank and all our doors and windows draughtproofed FREE, I can now get unmetered gas and electricity. I asked the young lady if it was true and said we paid about £100 per month just for electricity but she said that for about £67 we could use as much as we liked... that's gas and electricity! Anyway I didn't pursue the matter as it seemd too good to be true but a few days later I got a call from someone in the UK saying that I'd signed up for Staywarm and they were just calling to confirm the changeover date. Now we no longer have to pay for the gas and electricity we use, just a fixed amount per month. Needless to say we are staying warm. I suppose someone will eventually work out the costs of the scheme and cancel it sooner or later but for the moment it's nice being warm. I even fixed my central heating which hasn't worked properly for years.

And now the downbeat... 2014

We stayed with Staywarm for 11 years. After around 5 years the business was sold to one of the big players. No longer was the scheme to be for impoverished pensioners.. now it was to become a method of extracting lots of cash from gullible old people. The £67 per month rose year on year (eventually fourfold) and then was based on previous years consumption with units at full price... so in order to get value (because bills were fixed and issued on unmetered fuel) we used more and more. Eventually the scheme was withdrawn because pensioners on Staywarm were clearly getting TOO warm. We were to be switched to a special scheme designed for pensioners. Alas this never happened because Mr Cameron said there were too many schemes. The special pensioners scheme bit the dust before the switchover and now we all just pay for what we use... and of course pullovers and scarfs are the order of the day... and our heated garage and conservatory are now freezing.


Anyway here are my True Stories........ or my not-so-true stories

Stories (mostly, but not all, with computers as the theme)

 1 A Sticky Problem

 2 Wire-less..far from it!

 3 Does anyone want an 8 foot kettle lead?

 4 Hot stuff this computer gear!

 5 A non-computer error!

 6 Things that go Roomph in the night!

 7 Mine'd where you walk

 8 Konstant trouble!

 9 Things just weren't as cool in those days!

 10 Wrist slaps

 11 High flier? No thanks not me!

 12 New uses for oscilloscopes

 13 Bang you're dead! (soon)

 14 Has anyone got a map of Germany?

 15 Your TVs OK, how's the Air Defence System?

 16 Where exactly is that aircraft?

 17 Core blimey, what's going on?

 18 You can book two man weeks to the Rack

 19 Sorry, I missed the bit about who you wanted shooting down

 20 What would you do in four minutes?

 21 Is it safe to jump sarge...hang on a mo....NO!

 22 You think I'm joking?

 23 Pride comes before a fall

 24 A rewarding move

 25 Your job's secure but not your car?

 26 If in doubt do nowt

 27 I'll come in as long as I don't miss Coronation Street

 28 Finders keepers. No chance!

 29 All's well that ends well

 30 Computerising Air Traffic

 31 Define the risk=No risk

 32 Inventions

 33 OK CBs now legal but all the Breakers out there are still breaking the law!

 34 Want to build a VHF rig..try this?

 35 I hate repairing white goods

 36 I really hate repairing white goods

 37 Some Inspection lamp

 38 Deliveries

 39 Wait

 40 Crisis Management


And highly implausible stories?

 1 This story is made up (June 2002)

 2 This is partly true ( July 2002

 3 Another made up story ( August 2002)

 4 Totally imaginary secret meeting (September 2002)

 5 Yet another imaginary meeting at Number Ten (September 2002)

 6 Not yet! (October 2002)

 7 And another (November 2002)

 8 Great idea for some (January 2003)

 9 Being a Wednesday (February 2003)

 10 Immortal? (April 2003)

 11 Chance Meeting at Number Ten on Schools Crisis (May 2003)

 12 Meeting at Number Ten on NHS funding (June2003)

 13 Meeting at the Home office (June 2003)

 14 Ad-hoc cabinet meeting on the future of the NHS (September 2003)

 15 Another imaginary cabinet meeting at Number Ten (October 2003)

 16 Just an ordinary cabinet meeting at Number 10 ( mid 2004 or so)

 17 We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them (Jan 2004)

 18 Cabinet Meeting, end of January 2004

 19 Cabinet Meeting, February 2004

 20 Cabinet Meeting, middle of April 2004

 21 Cabinet Meeting, middle of October 2004

 22 Cabinet Meeting, November 2004

 23 Cabinet Meeting, December 2004

 24 Cabinet Meeting, May 2005

 25 Cabinet Meeting, April 2006

 26 Cabinet Meeting, July 2008

 27 Banks, October 2008

28 Expenses, them & us Jan 2009

  29 The Budget (Dec2012)

30 How many servants have you got?

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