NatWest and Russia Today

There was a lot of fuss in the news yesterday about Russia Today – the Kremlin’s English language propaganda arm – having their banking services withdrawn by NatWest bank in the UK.  Leaving aside the point that NatWest is free to do business with whomever it chooses and is under no obligation to provide banking services to RT if they don’t wish to; and also leaving aside the fact that it would be monumentally stupid for any member of the British government or authorities to put pressure on NatWest to withdraw their services; take a look at the letter that was sent:

I think at this point I ought to say to Russia Today: welcome to British banking!  What, you thought you were a customer and ought to be treated with respect and in a manner of transparency laced with helpful dialogue?

As the kidz say on FaceTwit: lolz!

No, this is simply British banking as they treat all their customers: arbitrary decisions which tick some regulatory box or other sent out of the blue via curt letter and of maximum the inconvenience to the customer.  Usually there is no name appended and customers are simply informed of what has happened or invited to call a helpline where somebody on two rupees a day wearing (probably) an adult diaper will tell you there’s nothing they can do.

Not that I have any sympathy with Russia Today.  Not because of their output – which is abominable – but because banks in Russia are no different.  I’ve had a bank in Sakhalin ordering me to get my bank – based in Geneva – to write them a letter (in Russian of course) in order to address a “problem” with a single letter of a person’s name that was not transliterated properly between Latin and Cyrillic.  I was also told I couldn’t open a local bank account as a foreign resident: only my employer could open one on my behalf.  And forget about trying to get foreign currency transferred into a ruble-denominated account in a straightforward, sensible manner.  Vrach, heal thyself!

Apparently NatWest has now backed down, making their statement that the “decision is final” to be a complete falsehood.  RT has quickly learned what I did with British banks: make enough fuss and they’ll back down, every time.  The difference is us ordinary folk can’t threaten them with a nuclear strike.

Hurrah for Comprehensive Education!

There is a furniture company in the UK which advertises relentlessly on Sky Sports, particularly during cricket matches, and earlier this year it looked as though they would be able to supply me with some items I was looking for.  They didn’t deliver abroad, but did offer free delivery in the UK, and so I could get them to deliver the goods to the premises of this outfit which I have used before to bring furniture from the UK to France (I can recommend them).

The cross-channel transport company quite reasonably asked what volume of goods I was shipping to they could give me a proper quote and reserve space in one of their vehicles.  Unfortunately, the furniture company don’t do what most furniture companies do and specify the volume of each item on their website, and so I had to email them and ask.

This turned out to be a difficult question to answer: apparently, they were unable to tell me unless I placed an order.  Alarm bells started ringing: could it be that I’d gotten involved with a company that puts 90% of its effort into sales teams and mass advertising, and 10% into delivering on its core services?  I was advised that I could place an order but not pay for it, and then ring them up (international call, of course) and get the information.  So I duly did just that.  The person who took the call sounded as though he applied for an entry-level position in a vegetable-packing plant and got turned down due to lack of intellect.  If he’d told me he’d suffered major head trauma in the past 24 hours but couldn’t get time off to go to hospital, I’d have believed him.  He told me he could see my order but couldn’t give me the volume because “only the logistics people know that”, and he thought they’d all gone home.  But he’d check.

After a few minutes he came back.  “Two point three centimetres squared”, he told me.  I sighed.  “Firstly,” I said “you have described something the approximate size of a cigarette lighter and I’m sure my furniture is a little larger than that.  Secondly, the unit will be cubed, as we are talking about a volume not an area.”  He replied with a voice that betrayed either a heavy cold, a hangover, or somebody holding his nose, “Well, this is what my computer screen is telling me.”

I finally got the information I wanted by converting his centimetres squared into metres cubed, but I never got the furniture: compared to his colleagues with whom I dealt with later, this chap was Employee of the Year.

Getting beds delivered in France

Well, our beds got delivered.  Yup, a couple of professional, uniformed, well-groomed young men turned up in a Compagnie du Lit transporter – the one we’d heard so much about last time – and installed our beds without a hitch.

Heh.  Only joking.

What happened was a couple of Algerians turned up in a rented Europcar van, one of whom was in a foul mood.  Within 10 seconds of trying to get a giant mattress in the elevator, he started screaming that the elevator was shit, and the stubborn mattress corner that wouldn’t quite fit he tried to persuade in by booting it as hard as he could.  This is the mattress I’d forked out about 800 Euros for.  They appeared to be in a blinding rush, the grumpy one hurling bits of bed in the first room he found and then shouting at me for telling him it was in the wrong room.  He then got upset because I said if he drags that dirty plastic mattress cover across my wallpaper again I’ll kick him out and refuse to sign for anything.  The less grumpy one leapt in and said “Sorry, but my friend is very tired”.

Like I give a fuck.

No, they could not assemble the beds (as I’d been promised by the salesman) and no they couldn’t take away the packaging (as I’d been promised by the salesman) because they work for a different company and their boss had told them they could not and blah blah blah.  Get the fuck out of my apartment, and tell your friend to have a shower some time in 2015.

So there you have it.  If you go to the one of the largest, nationwide bed suppliers in France you pay a few thousand Euros up front, then they give you all kinds of reasons why they can’t deliver them at a time of your choosing making references to the “transporter”, only to discover they’ve awarded the delivery to a couple of angry Algerians who’d nipped down to Europcar the day before and hired a van.

The beds themselves are damned good, though.

(Oh, and before anyone leaps in and tells me how wonderful this sort of thing is in the UK, last month I ordered a small item from a British shop online.  They sent it to my office address in France only neglected to put my actual name on it.  My office building has about 3,000 people in it.  So the mail room handed it back to the UPS driver and it was never seen again.  It took several threats of disparaging reviews and blog posts to persuade the company that they were at fault for not putting my name on the delivery, and that they should send a replacement.

And I should also mention that Darty delivered a fridge and washing machine on the same day the beds arrived, and that went like clockwork.)

Sympathy Level: Zero

I hope HSBC gets fined out of existence:

Britain’s biggest bank helped wealthy clients cheat the UK out of millions of pounds in tax, the BBC has learned.

Panorama has seen thousands of accounts from HSBC’s private bank in Switzerland leaked by a whistleblower in 2007.

They show bankers helped clients evade tax and offered deals to help tax dodgers stay ahead of the law.

HSBC admitted that some individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts. But it said it has now “fundamentally changed”.

Not that I have anything against British citizens opening offshore bank accounts (I have two myself, as the article makes clear they are not illegal and there are genuine reasons for having one), nor do I think the whistleblower was performing any kind of public service (indeed, I think he should be filled in), and nor do I care for HMRC or anyone engaging in illegal tax evasion.

But what pisses me off beyond belief is the pompous, self-righteous posturing of British high street banks who make normal people jump through umpteen petty bureaucratic hoops at their own expense in order to carry out ordinary transactions or to open an account, all in the name of preventing money laundering or tax evasion.  Most of what they ask you to do (e.g. present a notarised copy of your passport) is at their own discretion, and not a legal requirement.  Yet this doesn’t stop some spotty twerp in a flammable suit pompously telling you “it’s the law” when you query whether it’s really necessary to take a day off work and visit a random solicitor just to submit a mortgage application form to a bank with whom you hold an account already.

However, if you’re some dodgy Nigerian with a suitcase full of cash, a Mexican drug cartel, or what is being called “a wealthy client” then it’s “step right this way, sir”.

Lock ’em up and throw away the key, bunch of fuckers.

Buying Beds in France

We are in the process of buying an apartment in the French Alps, and in anticipation of getting the keys sometime in late February I visited an outlet of one of France’s largest bed suppliers.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I’ve chosen two very nice beds for a total of 3,000 Euro and I would like to place the order right now. But can they be delivered in 3 weeks?

Salesman: 3 weeks?! Merde, that is too short! We don’t have the stock!

Me: Okay. So when?

Salesman: I don’t know. Maybe 5 or 8 weeks.

Me: Okay. Not ideal, but this is France and not the USA, so I guess I’ll just have to wait. So, see that bed there? Two of them, please.

Salesman: Oh, that one? Oh, that is an extra delay. We have problems getting that one.

Me: When?

Salesman: I don’t know…we would need to see. It is complicated.

Me: Okay, whatever. Complicated. As is everything here, it seems. So can we at least agree that it can be delivered on a certain date once we know it is available?

Salesman: Sure, yes.

Me: On a Saturday?

Salesman: Mais, merde, non! C’est compliqué! We have the transporter, and many deliveries, and you are not in Paris but a province, and….well, it’s complicated.

Me: So here I am with 3,000 Euros ready so spend *right now* on a product you have right there, and you can’t tell me when it will be delivered, you can’t deliver it on a Saturday, and everything is too complicated?

Salesman: Bienvenue en France, m’sieur.

To be fair, the salesman looked about two stages away from full-on suicide, and I did feel sorry for him.  And I did place the order, because there was a sale on and anywhere else would have given me the same story as it was exactly the same when I bought a sofa last spring.  On that occasion I ended up buying the one in the shop in order to avoid a 12 week wait.  Only you must pay the full amount up-front, naturellement.

The bed salesman called me back a couple of days later.  He surprised me by telling me they’d managed to find some in stock (seriously, this nationwide company is unable to check stock in real time from its sales outlets; they need to send a special request and wait a day or two) and could deliver them whenever I wanted.  But only on Mondays or Wednesdays.  Why only those days?  Because “you don’t live near Paris” and “the transporter needs to do other deliveries” and “it’s complicated”.  Bienvenue en France, indeed.

I am comforted by the knowledge that it would be no different in the UK.

Why Competition is Good

Today I went into HSBC bank in Melbourne to open a bank account of the most basic kind on offer.  I didn’t expect much, having tried two or three times before to do the same thing in the UK, without success.  On those previous occasions, they raised objections within a minute or two of my saying what I wanted, and proceeded to reel off a load of bureaucratic hoops I’d need to jump through before they’d make any effort themselves.

Sure enough, the bullshit started quickly on this occasion.  They asked for my passport, then my UK driving license.  They said they needed the latter to confirm my address in the UK, even through I am resident in Australia (with a proper visa).  They asked for proof of address in Australia, which I gave them in the form of an invoice from the serviced apartments company from which I rent my flat (which is all inclusive, so I have no utility bills).  At this, the assistant pulled her face and asked if I could get somebody from my company to confirm this address.  I said I could, but the letter would come from me as I am the local representative of the company, and I set up the accommodation myself.  She pulled her face a bit more and went off to speak to her manager.  After a few minutes she came back with the expected “I’m sorry, but we can’t…” and invited me to write a letter to “HR” – who in my case live in Perth, have never met me, and could no more vouch for my residential address as they could the contents of my pocket.  I in turn invited them to call up the serviced apartments company and verify I was living there, but was met with another, wholly expected, “I’m sorry, but we can’t…”.  Even grudgingly accepting that there is a requirement to go through bureaucratic bullshit to open a bank account, it really grates that certain banks – HSBC being one of them – expect their customers to be the ones to negotiate it, instead of them.  Who the fuck is the customer, here?  So with that, I gathered up my documents and announced that I’d passed six or seven banks on the short walk from the office to HSBC, and I’ll try one of them.

So I did, and entered the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. I chose them because their merchant terminals generally accept my Credit Suisse Maestro card, whereas most others don’t (but that’s a subject for another post).  After a brief wait for somebody to see me, I was sat in a room opposite a helpful young lady on a computer and within 20 minutes I had a bank account number and details of how to access it online, with the password sent via SMS to my mobile phone.  Nobody asked to see my UK driving license, and I wasn’t asked to write letters to mythical HR departments a continent away to verify I hadn’t forged the invoice and was lying about where I lived.  Simply my passport, visa information, and contact details and away we went.  I was impressed.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why competition is good.  If one provider is shite, chances are a better one will exist nearby.  In a country where competition is badly missing in a lot of areas, its presence in the banking sector cheered me up considerably.

Incidentally, the reason I tried HSBC first was just to verify if they were as petty and shite as the other occasions I’d try to open an account with them, largely for the purposes of providing blogging material (bank-bashing never gets old around these parts).

And also incidentally, I noticed that all the people I dealt with in both banks were Chinese, and I don’t mean second generation.  The only “Australians” I saw were showing the customers which Chinese girl to go and speak to.  Read into that what you will.

HSBC: Hang the Bastards!!

Back in August 2007 I wrote this:

My application to open an offshore bank account with HSBC has fallen flat on its face.  In order for somebody resident in Russia to open an account on the Isle of Man, they need to have an opening balance of 60,000 Pounds Sterling, which despite my status as cigar-puffing oilman, I do not have.  The reason why they demand such a high opening balance for Russian residents (the normal requirement is 5,000 Pounds Sterling) is because of the risk of “money laundering”.  And that is about as detailed an explanation as I could get.

What is interesting is that HSBC do not advertise this requirement anywhere, it is simply a decision which gets made at the application stage.  Personally, I think the explanation is bollocks.  Anyone wanting to launder money from Russia is probably not going to be doing so in small amounts, and I can’t see how a 60,000 GBP opening balance is going to do anything to discourage such activities.  If anything, putting a maximum balance on the account would be more of a control on money laundering rather than a minimum balance.

And there is a follow-up story to that which I didn’t write about.

A couple of years later I was in London and opened up my RBSi account, thus getting shot of Barclays once and for all.  But just next door to the RBS branch was HSBC, so I thought I’d pop in there to see if I could open an account while I was in the area.  As with RBSi, HSBC has a requirement that you submit a copy of your passport notarised by either somebody in an embassy or somebody in a bank branch (both kind of hard to achieve in Sakhalin).  But whereas RBSi would notarise my passport copy in a branch, hand it back to me, and then allow me to submit this along with my (lengthy) application form all at once later, HSBC insisted that they could not let me leave their branch with a copy of my passport which they had notarised.  Apparently I had to fill all the forms out and then bring them all together to the branch, where they would notarise my passport and send the whole lot to the Isle of Man or wherever themselves.  I didn’t have the completed forms with me, assuming I could do that later.  When I asked them why they had to post everything themselves and why I was not allowed to take the notarised copy of my passport with me, I got a barrage of sanctimonious bollocks about “policies” and “fraud” and “money laundering”.  I was leaving the next day, so I told them to shove it up their arse and walked out, and haven’t crossed the threshold of HSBC since.

I got a similar run-around by Barclays.  They insisted that I had to turn up in person with my passport to do this, that, or the other all in the name of preventing money laundering, and gave me pompous lectures on how seriously they took all this.

But it was all bollocks.  Every time I read of a Nigerian who has been caught embezzling millions, and sometimes billions, of looted monies, the cash is inevitably routed through a British bank with a high-street name.  And this:

A US Senate probe has disclosed how lax controls at Europe’s largest bank left it vulnerable to being used to launder dirty money from around the world.

The report into HSBC, released ahead of a Senate hearing on Tuesday, says huge sums of Mexican drug money almost certainly passed through the bank.

Suspicious funds from Syria, the Cayman Islands, Iran and Saudi Arabia also passed through the British bank.

Because of course, and what is so blindingly obvious, is that these banks are quite happy to throw the “know your customer” regulations in the bin as soon as the sums of money involved are high enough.  Yes, they give self-righteous lectures to ordinary people with salaries who want to open a basic account and make them jump through all kinds of hoops (including making them come in person), but a Mexican wearing bandoliers, a droopy black moustache, and carrying a suitcase bulging with bloody dollar bills gets VIP service.

I hate these fuckers.  I now bank with the Swiss who, although they might be happy to do business with the dodgiest characters in the world, at least don’t pretend otherwise and make life a misery for the “little people”.  I hope the CEO gets the electric chair.

Barclays Caught Lying? Quelle Surprise!!

Apologies for the lack of posts, I’ve been both busy at work and travelling a bit and I’m in the middle of an enormous post on a trip to Germany which is taking a while.

But this I want to comment on:

Barclays Bank PLC Admits Misconduct Related to Submissions for the London Interbank Offered Rate and the Euro Interbank Offered Rate and Agrees to Pay $160 Million Penalty

So Barclays Bank has been caught lying through its arse, eh?  That’s strange, I always thought Barclays were such paragons of honesty and competence.

What a shame!

Nokia’s Demise Unsurprising

There has been a fair bit in the news lately of Nokia’s troubles, and the likelihood of the company having to lay off several thousand people as they try to arrest what looks to be a terminal decline.  Whereas folk losing their jobs is not very nice, if any of those soon to be joining the dole queue were involved in the development of their N86 model, then I’ll not be shedding any tears for those particular individuals.  It seems that Nokia’s troubles are not the result of wrong-headed acquisitions or overstretch; rather, everyone seems to think it is the company’s failure to develop a smartphone within 4 years of their competitors.  That may be the case, but in mine it may be even more simple than that: their phones are shit.

When I bought the N86 just over 2 years ago, it was their flagship model and the fourth or fifth Nokia I had owned.  Other than a company Ericsson in 1999, I’d not used anything else.  Even though I am still using the thing now, I am unlikely to buy another Nokia again.  Here’s why.

1.  When you charge it, a bright white LED comes on at the top of the phone, which cannot be turned off.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that I charge my phone at night and use it as an alarm clock, meaning it is beside my bed when I am sleeping.  Or rather, trying to sleep.  Kind of hard to nod off when you have some stupid, wholly unnecessary, bright white light shining six inches from your eye.

2.  Emails are by default saved in the phone memory, as opposed to the much larger mass memory or memory card.  All the phone’s operational functions run off the phone memory.  I have looked, but I am pretty sure there is no way to save emails anywhere other than the phone memory.  When you download emails, you have two options in the settings: headers only, and all text plus attachments.  There is no option to download only the body text and not the attachments.  Nor is there an option to save the attachments somewhere else, which was a feature on the HP iPAQ* PDAs back in 2004.  What this means is that if you have a lot of emails, or somebody sends you one or two big ones, the phone memory gets full and the phone stops working.  It locks itself up to the point that you cannot go into your emails and delete the big ones, so you have to go into the file manager and delete something else from the phone memory, such as a game.  But you can only do this after restarting the phone, which takes several minutes and sends up 3 or 4 low memory warnings which if you try to clear lock the phone up.  So if somebody innocently sends you a large email and you happen to pick it up on your N86, you spend the next 5 minutes waiting for your phone to restart after which you have to delete something you probably wanted to keep.

3.  When the memory runs low, the phone stops working properly.  One of the symptoms is when you leave your phone alone and try to do nothing at all, an “Error in Selected Template”  warning comes up, and prevents you using the phone for a while.  This wouldn’t be so bad if it popped up when you were actually trying to do something, but it appears the phone flags it up when trying to do something of its own accord.

4.  The processor is just too damned slow, and the phone keeps crashing.  Opening the email application takes between 5 and 10 seconds.  If you try to switch quickly from emails to read an SMS message, and then reply to that message, the reply-to screen will take anywhere up to 15 seconds to load.  If you try to switch between emails and the web, chances are your phone will crash.  Most of the time it cannot be rebooted by pressing the power button, you need to remove the battery.  I have to do this about 2-3 times a day in normal use.

5.  The phone thinks it’s being clever by automatically selecting any new wi-fi connection as the default – and only – connection for all subsequent web surfing.  So if you have it set on “Always Ask” and you go to Starbucks and try to connect to their wi-fi, it will ask you which connection you want to use.  But the phone will then change the settings from “Always Ask” to “Always use Starbucks wi-fi”, meaning when you go home and try to connect to your home network, it will start looking for Starbucks wi-fi.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the phone told you Starbucks wi-fi wasn’t available and would you like to select another?  But no, instead it says “WLAN not available, cannot complete operation” or some such guff, and you have to go into the internet settings to put the damned thing back where you had it in the first place.  Also, the general connectivity of the phone to wi-fi networks is rubbish.  For some reason, my phone won’t connect to my home network, even though my laptop and everyone else’s phone has no problems.

6.  If you try to amend any of the connection settings when a connection has recently been attempted, you get an error along the lines of “Cannot access database at this time.  Please try later”, as if you’ve stumbled across a website hosted on a Nigerian server.  This is almost as stupid in its inaccuracy as Microsoft Windows Media Player’s “Server Execution Failed”, which seems almost to be a randomly generated excuse.  They’d be better off saying “Wank Programming Error”.

7.  The interface with Skype is rubbish.  When Skype tries to find a connection it suggests them one at a time, up to a maximum of 3 attempts.  If the connection you want to use happens to be outside the top 3 in the phone’s connection priority list, you need to go and amend it so that it is.

8. The automatic screen alignment detection takes an age to function, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

9.  The phone is not sealed very well, so within a week of buying it dust had appeared behind the screen.  This gets steadily worse over time.

10.  The phone sometimes does something of its own accord which drains the battery in a matter of hours.

Now I don’t know if the phone performs as badly across all its functions, as I only use it for making calls, sending messages, picking up emails, and waking me up in the morning.  But if this was the best Nokia could offer when Apple was already selling the iPhone, it’s no wonder the company is in so much trouble now.

* So much for Apple being the ones to prefix everything with ‘i’.  I’m surprised somebody hasn’t sued over this.