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31 July 2008

Modernising tips: Government starting to take action

Following my blog post on tips in April and my note on the government better regulation site logged at the same time, I am pleased to report that at least part of this is now being taken seriously by the government as reported in today's news. We now need to get complete transparency for charging in restaurants now and abolish the nefarious practice of the mandatory service charge, which only serves to distort prices for customers. No other industry distorts their prices this way, and it has to stop in restaurants. The government response (below) to my idea is non committal and does not help consumers.

There are no regulations covering the practice of mandatory service charges or tips; it is a matter for the individual establishment to decide if they make non-optional charges, at what level the charges are set, and if they include different rules in certain circumstances ie parties over a certain number. Of course, consumers can exercise choice by refusing to dine in the establishment where they consider the charges to be unduly prohibitive. However, where obligatory charges are enforced, they must be set out clearly for the consumer whenever there is an invitation to purchase, ie on a menu card. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) 2008, which came into force on 26 May, require traders not to omit material information which the average consumer needs, according to the context, to make an informed choice but is not prescriptive as to how this information must be given (eg in writing). A case could be made that the average consumer is likely to want to know what mandatory charges are included

The Prices Practices Guide which recommends to traders a set of good practices in giving the consumer information about prices in various situations, and takes account of the provisions of the CPRs, advises that where customers are required to pay a non-optional extra charge, such as a service charge, then it should be incorporated within the fully inclusive price wherever possible, also the non-optional charge should be displayed clearly on any price list or priced menu whether displayed inside or outside the establishment. Where, however, an optional sum is suggested for service, it should not automatically be included in the total bill presented to the customer.

Where a service charge or a tip is paid via a bill, it is a matter for the employer to negotiate with the employee how they are shared out. There is no law which sets this out. However, monies paid to a restaurant (eg by credit card) belong to the restaurant in the first instance, and tax is due on tips however they are paid to the waiter. National Insurance Contributions will be due if the tips are paid to workers by the employer.


29 July 2008

Problem with Iprofile: Contact details to log faults

I use Iprofile which is the online CV designed to make life easier for recruiters.

However, the system is extremely buggy, insecure and worse that that it's next to impossible to contact iprofile as they seem to ignore support requests sent through their webform and like so many user-hostile websites fail to publish a support phone number. Non existent customer service? Time for them to "read my blog"!

If you are experiencing similar difficulties with iProfile and want their customer service phone number it is available on the parent group website and just in case you missed it, here it is: 020 7025 0555 (I will also post the variant 02070250555) just to ensure it is picked up by search engines.

I was thinking of launching a startup website where people could log faults and see what faults had been logged, a bit like bugzilla but just as you can search for bugs in bugzilla by project, my idea would be that you could search and log bugs on other people's websites irrespective of whether they used bugzilla or not. Users could then vote on the bugs they wanted fixed first and if the company had any sense, they would look at the lists and do something about it. Here is this morning's batch of iprofile issues:, bug 1. When I apply for a job, the acknowledgement I get back has someone else's email address in the candidate username link. This is a security risk as it exposes someone else's details (they work at barclaycard). I told you about this bug in May, you eventually responded in May saying the only way to fix it was the rather poor cop out of rebuilding my profile. I reluctantly agreed, however the bug is still present. Why?, bug 2. My available from date has to be today or a date in the future. I have set it to today's date and I do this whenever I go into iprofile. However, several hours later I find it reset to a date 6 weeks ago in June which means I have to go in and manually change it again. Please fix this bug as it presents misleading information to prospective employers. I see you have also fixed the related bug which changes my jobseeker status from "actively looking" to "not actively looking", however other related problems persist.

I am aware of similar sites such as suggestion box but what I'm after here is more along the lines of a cross between that and utest.

Irrespective of your issues with iprofile, you might like to vote for this idea on reddit, maybe it will get some investors my way and we can start to use crowdsourcing to shame buggy websites into fixing their problems - satisfied users might actually help such sites to make more money?


28 July 2008

Homecoming Scotland

Please visit for details of a major programme of events throughout 2009 to celebrate Scottish culture and to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

23 July 2008

Sorting out UK Government data privacy

Please view this idea I posted on the Better Regulation website to attempt to sort out the conflicts in UK privacy laws. Comments welcome. Following my posting here, this letter was published in this week's computing magazine.


18 July 2008

The demise of the Scottish entrepreneur

Two days ago I posted that Scotland's answer to Dragons Den had ceased trading.

I came across this note I posted to the First Tuesday Scotland network on 9th June 2003, over 5 years ago.

It seems not much has changed in that time to support the Scottish Entrepreneur, indeed with this week's announcement things are only getting worse. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but I tell it as it is.

In message <BPEDJNPNLJEFMFCOBAMOIEDDDOAA.gordon@firsttuesday>, Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp <>wrote:
>For about 6 years I have disagreed with the direction of Scottish Enterprise
>as a whole and that is why I left the organisation to set up this network.
>Economies are driven by confidence and positivity, demand and the
>availability of disposable income. Regardless of the expertise of the man at
>the top and the people throughout the organisation SE can only do the
>bidding of the Scottish Parliament and this is where it goes wrong - it suffers
>from public sector thinking - good people hamstrung by red tape and politics.
I replied:

The public sector mentality is about as far removed as you can get from the
rapidly moving and flexible environment of being an entrepreneur.

Scottish Enterprise may be headed by a competent individual, but this is little
better than having a competent train driver. If the network operator can't work
the points, you end up permanently on a slow line or a dead end siding.

There needs to be a total change of mindset in the executive and at UK level
before anything serious begins to change.

How about assessing businesses on the quality of the idea, the opportunity it
addresses and the likelihood of success rather than engaging in little more
than a box ticking exercise, or claiming to provide a service for info which can
be easily obtained on line, or assessing businesses based on the number of
birthdays the founder has had?

Scotland is famous for its inventors - people who have changed the world and
been huge successes. What support is there for these people from Scottish
Enterprise? What help in filing for a patent would there be for today's John
Logie Bairds or Alexander Graham Bells or more widely James Dyson or
Trevor Bayliss both of whom had huge obstacles in getting products to

What help would there be in helping the lone entrepreneur with a brilliant idea
if they have little or no resources of their own to do it? Such people would of
course be precluded from the "Proof of concept" funding because this is tied
to working in a research establishment.

Furthermore there is a huge contradiction when it comes down to help for the
entrepreneur. Businesses are supposed to be flexible, geared up for parents
with flexible working needs, geared up for people wanting to work part time,
geared up for distance working etc with all these directives and laws being
passed. So you tick all the boxes for things the executive is saying they want
to promote: "I'm wanting to start up, what help is there for time-poor, cash-
poor parents wanting to work part time in the business while they get going
and keep down a day job and I want to work from home to save money". What
help is there specifically for parents or anyone in these categories? None. The
"Who wants to be an entrepreneur" competition has become "Who wonders
where it went" and The John Logie Baird awards have vanished like the dot in
the middle of the inventor's TV screen. Meantime in the real world where
businesses in 2006 will be prosecuted for ageism in recruitment, we have the
exact opposite going on in the world of the entrepreneur where you can't get
certain awards (e.g. PSYBT) based on whether your partner has had more
than 30 birthdays (even though the main applicant qualifies). Are these to be
made illegal post 2006?

Why does the very nature of how SE lends its funding and help and what help
there is, go almost 100% against what businesses themselves are expected
to do when they employ people? Does no-one do joined up thinking anymore?


17 July 2008

Using twitter as a free trade platform

Buy and sell anything online using Twitter for free.

I thought this was worth a try. Twitter has taken off because it is short, simple, easy to use and readily accessible from a number of different platforms. It's so easy to post a short tweet when that's all you want to say rather than a long blog article. It's more immediate and like SMS is particularly useful when you have a short message or series of short messages to put out quickly. Microblogging is taking off, even the Prime Minister uses it. Having received a twitter message from a government minister earlier today, it seems to be an effective way to reach people.

However, rather than considering Twitter as the SMS equivalent of blogging, what about using the Twitter API via sites such as tweetscan to scan the entire twittersphere for anything of interest? Twitter needn't just replace blogging - the free posting to a large audience via Tweetscan and others could rival other free advertising platforms such as Craigslist (ugh) and Gumtree (also ugh), both owned in part by Ebay. It needn't stop there - if enough people set up twitter wanted feeds you could list for free on Twitter rather than paying to list on Ebay.

Paying for such a service is a problem with no feedback mechanism but it's no worse than currently exists with Craigslist and Gumtree.

However, let me suggest a format. This is based loosely on the XML content I receive in RSS feeds for jobs etc and seems to work well enough for that.

You have 140 characters. I suggest the "tweet trade format" as follows (illustrated by examples)


  • Want: Wanting to use a service (e.g. a plumber sought)

  • Buy: Wanting to buy a physical product (e.g. a PC)

  • Sell: Wanting to sell a physical product (e.g. a PC)

  • List: Listing offering a service (e.g. I am a plumber, I am listing a job on offer, etc)

Supposing you have a mobile phone for sale in Mt View California. The listing would look like this:
SELL: Nokia E61 (Used) :$50 Mountain View/CA/US 2008-07-20

Maybe you want to buy a house?
BUY: House 4 bed :$500000 Sunnyvale/CA/US 2008-08-31
The price here being the maximum

Supposing you have a job listing, this is a service listing so comes under the LIST category. Contract Project Manager in London, UK for £500 per day.

e.g. LIST: Contract Project Manager Agile PRINCE2 :£500pd London/UK 2008-07-20

The "where" would end with the 2 letter ISO country code (ISO3166). If the item is relevant to a global audience then WW could be used (world-wide) as in WWW (world-wide web).

e.g. WANT: Domain for Web2.0 startup :$10000 2008-08-21
The price here being the maximum price willing to be paid.

Dates would be in international ISO8601 format. That way Americans and Europeans will have the same format and we don't get confused over 04/07/2008 being the 4th of July or the 7th of April.

The URL could of course point to a page on your own site, your blog, a listing on Ebay, a listing on Craigslist or Gumtree or for an item wanted, you could give more detail about what is you want by linking to a similar item on Ebay, Amazon, whatever. It could also link to an openID page for people to contact you, mine is

If you think this is a great idea, drop me an email - I'm compiling a mailing list of interested parties who think being able to list products and services on the internet and sell them /effectively/ for as much as it costs to list a webpage in Google (ie nothing) is the way to go and I'm keen to build up a userbase to convince prospective investors that this will take off. It has a long way to go past twitter listings, this is just an early toe in the water.

If anyone wants to build a tool to build up the listing in the standard format via a webform, then drop me a line.

Then with these listings, you can search for them simply using or use Tweetscan to sign up for email alerts when something matches what you are looking for (just like eBay favourite search notifications). You can also use tweetscan to search up a search and associated RSS feed for it.

I can see this format evolving over time, but that seems enough for a starter. Comments welcome.

Company directors at high risk of ID theft due to government data loss

Letter to Computing:

Following the recent string of data losses by HM Government, no-one seems to have taken on board the institutionalised data leaks which HM Government practices as part of its statutory liability and the implication for openly publishing tens of thousands of names, addresses and dates of birth free of charge on the Internet for any ID thief to easily pick up on and make use of.

If this was the general public there would be a national scandal, as there was with the HMRC data loss. If the general public had their names, addresses and dates of birth openly accessible online with no restrictions on who could access them, no payment required and no traceability on who had downloaded them then heads would roll.

Yet this is the exact practice which goes on at Companies House if you are a company director, something that increasing numbers of people are doing to find work as contractors in a shrinking employment market. Whilst it may be a statutory duty to gather such information and whilst it may be perfectly valid to have such information to validate people's IDs in the same way the same information is used to apply for credit cards, I can see no compelling reason why the entire database needs to be dumped uncontrolled for anyone on the web to access unrestricted. We need to move to a model where such private and confidential data is treated the same way irrespective of whether it is a private individual's data on the HMRC computer or a Company Director's data at Company's House - it's the same data after all. The forthcoming changes in the Companies Act only allow the address to be withheld, so even after these changes the director's full name and date of birth will be public and can still easily be tied up with historic electoral registers before the edited versions were introduced. Simply publishing the age is also not enough since the data of birth can be deduced by querying the site once per day for a year, a task easily automated.

You reported on 3rd July, front page, that one person had accessed the name, address and phone number of another businesses' details on-line at the PAYE site. The scale of openly publishing the private details of the directors of 2 million limited companies in the UK is surely much more significant.

Company Directors are not immune from ID theft, yet the government does nothing to protect the ID of over 2 million company directors. Why not?

16 July 2008

Yahoo: How to take on Google and Microsoft

If I said that I know of a way in which Yahoo could dramatically improve its search capability, take on Google in areas that Google is currently completely hopeless and become the market leader in a global area of search far more valuable than searching for mere web pages, do you think someone from Yahoo would look up my LinkedIn profile to see that with my background I might know what I'm talking about, pick up the phone and invite me down to London to 125 Shaftesbury Avenue London WC2H 8AD for an informal chat with the view to hiring me on a contract basis to implement this?

Google's obviously not too far away at 76 Buckingham Palace Road London, SW1W 9TQ so if there's no call then it's a short tube ride away to both Google and just round the corner Microsoft at 100 Victoria Street London SW1E 5JL if Yahoo aren't interested in turning themselves around.

Worth a try eh? Might even be as far ahead of its time as a touch screen browser and personalised news in April 1990.

Craig (craig at

Update: 19 Feb 2013: Here's me chatting with a Director of Search at Google.

Really Yahoo and Microsoft, the door's still open - why don't you give me a call?

Connect Scotland ceases trading

THE Scottish networking firm that ran Dragons' Den-style events for technology entrepreneurs has been forced to close after struggling with mounting debts.

In what will be seen as a significant blow to the Scottish technology sector, Connect Scotland has ceased trading and has had to lay off all seven staff.

read the full article.

Ironic that the company set up to assist Scots companies find finance has itself run out of money. If the people running Connect, some of the leading lights of Scottish IT can't find money for that venture, it certainly doesn't bode well for budding entrepreneurs trying to find startup cash.

However, down south the Angels Den continues to do well.

Something like that is certainly needed in Scotland.


Obsolete panned by Scottish parliament

A six-month inquiry into Scottish tourism has concluded that VisitScotland's "current business model is patently flawed and obsolete" and consumer website requires an entirely new focus. The Scottish Parliament's 'Economy, Energy and Tourism Report' took as its starting point the issue of whether Scotland can deliver its previously announced target of increasing tourism revenues by 50% by 2015, using 2005 as the base. "Tourism is increasingly about technology," the report said. 'It is the booking medium and the favoured information channel. It is immediate, comparative and unforgiving." Specifically, the committee felt that would operate more effectively as an information portal. "We want to see a move towards a top-quality, national, web-based portal that provides all the necessary information and advice on Scotland. "This website should then contain a full listing of quality-assured businesses with a link to a means of contact (electronic if possible). read the full article covering this. If you want to see the full report it is available on the Scottish parliament website. You could see this coming when the site was panned in 2007 You can read my own comments on the site here. In the beginning, there was a non-internet database system which STB used and was abandoned. Then there was the website hosted by EC1 Then there was the website built by Realise not to mention the 1996 implementation which in 1996 was ahead of Ossian in 2000. Then there was the website hosted by Scotland On Line Then there was the "IT Project", subsequently called Ossian. Technically advanced it offered facilities in 2001 that were peer reviewed at JavaOne in California in 2000 to critical acclaim. It was the technology platform that could have formed the basis of a software product to sell worldwide (Like the Tiscover one which VisitScotland eventually bought!) In 2001, flexible pricing was built but legal issues due to PPP prevented it from being deployed as it was something none of the PPP partners had available as an off the shelf product. Then in 2002 came PPP, which you can read about here. Despite emerging from an exhaustive open tendering process, the underlying technology which was chosen was supplied by Touchvision. Their software was woefully underperformant, resulting in major performance problems via all the booking channels during the summer. Then in 2006 we got version 8 of the VisitScotland project, this time supplied by Tiscover. This being the version panned by the Scottish Parliament in the report above and on the Scotsman site. Having worked for visitscotland and I know there are talented people there. I delivered e-commerce for VisitScotland in 2001 and left in 2006. My next job was project managing a rather more successful site, There are talented web design companies not only in Edinburgh but throughout Scotland. Amazon, with a research and development base in Scotland has the world's leading e-commerce platform and powers Marks and Spencer's site. With so much technical and design talent within an hour's drive of visitscotland, why does it take 8 iterations of a website, millions of pounds and development going overseas only to end up with a national website that has been panned by the parliament? Sure you expect software to evolve over time, but at no time in the history of the project has it ever had a CTO or CIO that actually understood search technology well enough to build a world leading platform that could meet the needs of Scottish tourism (and by the way maybe sell it to other tourist boards as well). I had the laughable experience of using the latest iteration last weekend when I was looking for self catering accommodation on a Saturday night to start the following morning. Despite typing in Sunday as the start date of the booking, the site kept advising me to contact the contact centre even though the contact centre didn't open until the day after my booking started. As someone who typically spends 200 nights a year in hotels, I use Tripadvisor and Priceline to handle my bookings, they may have their problems but they are simpler and easier to use. Another travel company (based 10 mins from VisitScotland's HQ) is Skyscanner, they can give me pricing info on flights around the dates I want to fly thereby allowing me to choose the cheapest days to fly on. A small startup with a few employees offering a search that 8 iterations, millions of pounds and decades of man years later, VisitScotland still can't offer. One day you might even get an accommodation search engine for Scotland that lets you search and book online for a family including children. Still some way off for the "patently flawed" Craig

05 July 2008

Scottish self catering accommodation

I have already blogged about Bank of Self Catering - oddly the only part
of Scottish accommodation where you have to send a large portion of your
booking costs up front to book it and then the balance well before you
show up - unlike serviced accommodation which is a small amount to book
it and then usually the balance when you leave. This is despite
self-catering being in high demand and easily resellable. On top of
banking my cash for months, they then take credit card charges as well
(at least they did when I worked at VisitScotland), something serviced
accommodation didn't do.

I think Bank of Self Catering Ltd are calling too many shots here. What
I want is to put down a deposit to book the place (equivalent to the
likely profit they make from the booking) and then pay the balance by
credit card the week I turn up. No credit card charges either.

However this bank of self catering Ltd pales into insignificance next to
the standard of accommodation offered. I have stayed in decent hotels in
the middle of London that cost a similar amount than Scottish shoddy
self catering, yet offer so much more. Like clean sheets, new
mattresses, breakfast thrown in. You can use a mobile phone, free
broadband, room cleaned daily.

Self catering is so much more basic, yet still costs as much.

I write this from one such place. There is dirt round the fridge door.
The mattress smells. The duvet cover is dirty. There was no mention on
the schedule of there being no freezer. There was no mention on the
schedule of there being no shower. Only one bedroom has heating. The
kitchen smells. There is no change of linen available. In a weird set of
priorities there is a Sky box, but no freezer (excepting the one with a
'broken' sign on it).

Frankly I stayed in better as a student. At least the halls of residence
had a shower and extra pillows. Fortuntalely I have two phones, because
there's minimal coverage on Orange, pretty fundamental if you're
somewhere remote and this is your only line of communication. Having
rooms with "use at your own risk" on the door is not great either.

Benefits I'd get in a hotel such as broadband? forget it - I can't even
plug a video recorder into the TV to record programmes when we're out.

All this for a 350 advance payment months ago and another 350 advance
payment weeks ago, it's simply not good enough.

I stay in hotels about 200 nights a year and the sort of tired and dirty
accommodation you get in self catering places would not be accepted in
the serviced accommodation business. You get more thrown in and your
don't have to pay 100% well in advance. You usually also get decor that
is somewhat contemporary rather than decor and wiring that looks like
it's just escaped from the 1950s.

There are exceptions, however, we stayed in Self Catering Accommodation
in Armadale on the Isle of Skye: which was
excellent and we returned several times. They promised to be a home from
home and delivered on the promise, unlike so much of the rest of the
Scottish self catering market.

Get your act together otherwise we, and the rest of the visitors you
expect to get will go elsewhere.

The ideal self catering search would offer
Which mobile networks are available from the property
Can you leave payment until the week before.
Are credit cards accepted without penalties
Is there a working fridge
Is there a working freezer
is there a working washing machine
Is there a working tumble drier
Proper pictures of every room
A link to a location map (unlike which only offers
this for some listings, rather useless to the visitor unfamiliar with
placenames and locations)
I'm sure I could go on. The search options for self-catering are pretty
woeful online, even worse than Serviced Accommodation

When is the accommodation business going to get its act together?


Craig Cockburn ("coburn"). Director, Ltd
Web project manager and Internet specialist. CITP. C.Eng

02 July 2008

End of the website login

The future looks bright for those who struggle to remember their password as they log in to a particular website thanks to a rare tie-up between Microsoft and Google.

On Friday, the duo set aside their rivalry to join Oracle, Equifax and PayPal to become the founding members of the aptly-named Information Card Foundation.

With support from other A-list internet players, the non-profit group will push virtual replacements of physical ID cards, like a driving licence, towards the mainstream.

Unlike cards in their wallets, consumers would be able to amend the details on their on-screen cards though; like the offline world, would have multiple cards.

Central to this is the e-wallet, which would let users choose an icon for the card they want for a specific website, bypassing the need to type and remember any password.

As the wallet is online, consumers could select their ‘i-cards’ from anywhere in the world, with enhanced security and interoperability with major sites as standard, the ICF hopes.

“Rather than logging into web sites with usernames and passwords, Information Cards let people ‘click-in’ using a secure digital identity that carries only the specific information needed to enable a transaction,” said Charles Andres, its executive director.

Read the full article here.

Thank goodness for that, I was writing about this multiple login username nonsense back in 2003. Why does it take the IT industry so long to solve these problems?


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