Giving Cinema Paradiso a try

Farewell, LoveFiLM ^

I’ve been a customer of LoveFiLM for something like 12 years—since before they were owned by Amazon. In their original incarnation they were great: very cheap, and titles very often arrived in exactly the order you specified, i.e. they often managed to send the thing from the very top of the list.

In 2011 they got bought by Amazon and I was initially a bit concerned, but to be honest Amazon have run it well. The single list disappeared and was replaced by three priority lists; high, normal and low, and then a list of things that haven’t yet been released. New rentals were supposed to almost always come from the high priority list (as long as you had enough titles on there) but in a completely unpredictable order. Though of course they would keep multi-disc box sets together, and send lower-numbered seasons before later seasons.

Amazon have now announced that they’re shutting LoveFiLM by Post down at the end of October which I think is a shame, as it was a service I still enjoy.

It was inevitable I suppose due to the increasing popularity of streaming and downloads, and although I’m perfectly able to do the streaming and download thing, receiving discs by post still works for me.

I am used to receiving mockery for consuming some of my entertainment on little plastic discs that a human being has to physically transport to my residence, but LoveFiLM’s service was still cheap, the selection was very good, things could be rented as soon as they were available on disc, and the passive nature of just making a list and having the things sent to me worked well for me.

Cinema Paradiso ^

My first thought was that that was it for the disc-by-post rental model in the UK. That progress had left it behind. But very quickly people pointed me to Cinema Paradiso. After a quick look around I’ve decided to give it a try and so here are my initial thoughts.

Pricing ^

At a casual glance the pricing is slightly worse than LoveFiLM’s. I was paying £6.99 a month for 2 discs at home, unlimited rental per month. £6.98 at Cinema Paradiso gets you 2 discs at home but only 4 rentals per month.

I went back through my LoveFiLM rental history for the last year and found there were only 2 months where I managed to rent more than 4 discs, and those times I rented 5 and 6 discs respectively. Realistically it doesn’t seem like 4 discs per month will be much of a restriction to me.

Annoyingly, Cinema Paradiso have a 2 week trial period but only if you sign up to the £9.98 subscription (6 discs a month). You’d have to remember to downgrade to the cheaper subscriptions after 2 weeks, if that’s all you wanted.

Selection ^

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the selection is at Cinema Paradiso. Not only did they have every title that is currently on my LoveFiLM rental list (96 titles), but they also had a few things that LoveFiLM thinks haven’t been released yet.

I’m not going to claim that my tastes are particularly niche, but there are a few foreign language films and some anime in there, and release dates range from the 70s to 2017.

Manual approval ^

It seems that new Cinema Paradiso signups need to be manually approved, and this happens only on week days between 8am and mid day. I’ve signed up on a Saturday evening so nothing will get sent out until Monday I suppose.

It’s probably not a big deal as we’re talking about the postal service here so even with LoveFiLM nothing would get posted out until Monday anyway. It is a little jarring after moving away from the behemoth that is Amazon though, and serves as a reminder that Cinema Paradiso is a much smaller company.

Searching for titles ^

The search feature is okay. It provides suggestions as you type but if your title is obscure then it may not appear in the list of suggestions at all you and need to submit the search box and look through the longer list that appears.

A slight niggle is that if you have moused over any of the initial suggestions it replaces your text with that, so if your title isn’t amongst the suggestions you now have to re-type it.

I like that it shows a rating from Rotten Tomatoes as well as from their own site’s users. LoveFiLM shows IMDB ratings which I don’t trust very much, and also Amazon ratings, which I don’t trust at all for movies or TV. Seeing some of the shockingly-low Rotten Tomatoes scores for some of my LoveFiLM titles resulted in my Cinema Paradiso list shrinking to 83 titles!

Rental list mechanics ^

It’s hard to tell for sure at this stage because I haven’t yet got my account approved and had any rentals, but it looks to me like the rental list mechanics are a bit clunky compared to LoveFiLM’s.

At LoveFiLM at the point of adding a new title you would choose which of the three “buckets” to put a rental in; high priority, normal priority, or low priority. Every title in those buckets were of equal priority to every other item in the same bucket. So, when adding a new title all you had to consider was whether it was high, medium or low.

Cinema Paradiso has a single big list of rentals. In some ways this might appeal because you can fine-tune what order you would like things in. But I would suggest that very few people want to put that much effort into ordering their list. Personally, when I add a new title I can cope with:

  • “I want to see this soon”
  • “I want to see this some time”
  • “I want to see this, but I’m not bothered when”

Cinema Paradiso appears to want me to say:

  • “Put this at the top, I want it immediately!”
  • “This belongs at #11, just after the 6th season of American Horror Story, but before Capitalism: A love Story
  • “Just stick it at the end”

I can’t find any explanation anywhere on their site as to how the selection actually works, so the logical assumption is that they go down your list from top to bottom until they find a title that you want that they have available right now. Without the three buckets to put titles in, it seems to me then that every addition will have to involve some list management unless I either want to see that title really soon, or probably never.

I’ll have to give it a go but this mechanism seems a bit more awkward than LoveFiLM’s approach and needlessly so, because LoveFiLM’s way doesn’t make any promises about which of the titles in each bucket will come next either, nor even that it will be anything from the high priority bucket at all. Although I cannot remember a time when something has come that wasn’t from the high priority bucket.

Cinema Paradiso does let you have more than one list, and you can divide your disc allocation between lists, but I don’t think I could emulate the high/normal/low with that. Having a 2 disc allocation I’d always be getting one disc from the “high” list and one disc from the “normal” priority, which isn’t how I’d want that to work.

Let’s see how it goes.

Referral ^

I did not know when I signed up that there was a referral scheme which is a shame because I do know some people already using Cinema Paradiso. If you’re going to sign up then please use my referral link. I will get a ⅙ reduction in rental fees for each person that does.

Scrobbling to Last.fm from D-Bus

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that my music player, Banshee, had not been scrobbling to my Last.fm for a few weeks. Last.fm seem to be in the middle of reorganising their site but that shouldn’t affect their API (at least not for scrobbling). However, it seems that it has upset Banshee so no more scrobbling for me.

Banshee has a number of deficiencies but there’s a few things about it that I really do like, so I wasn’t relishing changing to a different player. It’s also written in Mono which doesn’t look like something I could learn very quickly.

I then noticed that Banshee has some sort of D-Bus interface where it writes things about what it it doing, such as the metadata for the currently-playing track… and so a hackish idea was formed.

Here’s a thing that listens to what Banshee is saying over D-Bus and submits the relevant “now playing” and scrobble to Last.fm. The first time you run it it asks you to authorise it and then it remembers that forever.

https://github.com/grifferz/dbus-scrobbler

I’ve never looked at D-Bus before so I’m probably doing it all very wrong, but it appears to work. Look, I have scrobbles again! And after all it would not be Linux on the desktop if it didn’t require some sort of lash-up that would make Heath Robinson cry his way to the nearest Apple store to beg a Genius to install iTunes, right?

Anyway it turns out that there is a standard for this remote control and introspection of media players, called MPRIS, and quite a few of them support it. Even Spotify, apparently. So it probably wouldn’t be hard to adapt this script to scrobble from loads of different things even if they don’t have scrobbling extensions themselves.

Has your CurrentCost ever done this?

Update: Replacing the battery and retraining the receiver fixed it. I suppose it must have had enough juice to flash the LED but not transmit.

A few days ago my CurrentCost starting reading just dashes. There’s also no transmitter icon, so I think it’s not receiving anything from the transmitter. It looks like this:

CurrentCost showing just dashes

I went and fished the transmitter box out of the meter closet expecting its batteries to be dead, but it still has its red LED flashing periodically, so I don’t think it’s that.

I did the thing where you hold down the button on the transmitter for 9 seconds and also hold down the V button on the display to make them pair. The display showed its “searching” screen for a while but then it went back to how it looks above.

Anyone had that happen before? It’s otherwise worked fine for 4 years or so (batteries replaced once).

The HIPPOBAG experience

Sacks of soil and stones in our front garden
We’ve been doing some work in our front garden recently. Part of that involved me digging up the top 5cm or so of the stony horrible existing soil.

All in all, around a tonne of stones and soil got bagged up and had been sitting in our front garden for a couple of months. We’ve kept four sacks for use in the back garden which left 21 sacks and around 800kg to dispose of.

I enquired at our local tipreuse and recycling centre, Space Waye, who informed me that

“waste from home improvements/renovations is classed as industrial waste and is liable for charging.”

Apparently soil from your own garden is also classed as the result of an improvement and is therefore industrial waste, the disposal of which is charged at £195 per tonne. If I were to dispose of the soil and stones at the council facility I would need to transport it there and pay in the region of £156.

Looking for alternatives, I came across HIPPOBAG. The business model is quite simple:

  1. You pick which size of bag you require.
  2. They post it to you (or you can buy it at a few different DIY stores).
  3. You fill it.
  4. You book a collection.
  5. They come and take it away, which they aim to do within 5 working days.
  6. They recycle over 90% of the waste they collect.

Their “MEGABAG” at 180cm long × 90cm wide × 70cm tall and with a maximum weight of 1.5 tonnes seemed the most appropriate, and cost £94.99 — a saving of £61 over the council’s offering, and no need to transport it anywhere ourselves.

The bag turned up in the post the next day, at which point I discovered a discrepancy in the instructions.

The filling instructions on the documentation attached to the bag stated that it should only be filled two thirds with soil, and levelled out. Neither the Frequently Asked Questions page nor the How To Use A Hippobag page say anything about this, and all pictures on the site show the bags filled right up, so I was completely unaware of any such restriction.

Now, I “only” had 800kg of soil but that was some 21 sacks which when placed in the bag did fill it past the top level. I don’t see how you could use the maximum capacity of 1.5t and only fill it two thirds. I was really worried that they weren’t going to carry out the collection.

With the awkward shape of the rubble sacks they weren’t packing that well into the bag. There was a lot of wasted space between them. In the interests of packing down the soil more level we decided to split open many of the sacks so the soil and stones would spread out more evenly.

I had some misgivings about this because if Hippobag decided there was too much to collect and if it were all still in sacks, at least I might have had the option of removing some of the sacks and not entirely waste my money. On the other hand it did look like it would pack down a lot further.

What we were left with was a bag about half to two thirds full of soil and stones with three or four more sacks of it plonked in the middle, no higher than the lip of the bag.

On the evening of Monday 12th I booked a collection. I was expecting to be able to choose a preferred day, but it seems the only option is “as soon as possible”, and

we aim to collect your HIPPOBAG at any time within 5 working days of your booking

So, by Monday 19th then?

I wrote in the “comments to the driver” section that I would definitely be in so they should ring the bell (they don’t need you to be at home to do a collection). I wanted to check everything was okay and ask them about the filling instructions.

The afternoon of Monday 19th came and still no collection. I filled in the contact form on their web site to enquire when it might take place.

At some point on Tuesday 20th May I looked out of our front window and the bag had gone. I hadn’t heard them make the collection and they didn’t ring the bell. It must have happened when I was out in the back garden. They shoved a collection note through our door. My comments to the driver were printed on the bottom, so they must have seen them. I still haven’t received a response to my enquiry. They did actually reply to my enquiry on the afternoon of Tuesday 20th. I’d missed that at the time this was written.

Not a big deal since they did perform the collection without issue and only a day later than expected.

Really I still think that council refuse sites should be more open to taking waste like this at no charge, or a lot cheaper than ~£156, if you can prove it is your own domestic waste.

I understand that the council has a limited budget and everyone in the borough would be paying for services that not everyone uses, but I also think there would be far fewer incidents of fly tipping — which the council have to clean up at huge expense to the tax payer.

Compared to having to transport 21 sacks of soil to Space Waye and then pay £156 to have them accept it though, using HIPPOBAG was a lot more convenient and £61 cheaper. It’s a shame about the unclear instructions and slow (so far no) response to enquiries, but we would most likely use them again.

On attempting to become a customer of Metro Bank

On the morning of Saturday 12th April 2014 I visited the Kingston Upon Thames store of Metro Bank in an attempt to open a current account.

The store was open — they are open 7 days a week — but largely empty. There was a single member of staff visible, sat down at a desk with a customer.

I walked up to a deserted front desk and heard footsteps behind me. I turned to be greeted by that same member of staff who had obviously spotted I was looking a bit lost and come to greet me. He apologised that no one had greeted me, introduced himself, asked my name and what he could help me with. After explaining that I wanted to open a current account he said that someone would be with me very soon.

Within a few seconds another member of staff greeted me and asked me to come over to her desk. So far so good.

As she started to take my details I could see she was having problems with her computer. She kept saying it was so slow and made various other inaudible curses under her breath. She took my passport and said she was going to scan it, but from what I could see she merely photcopied it. Having no joy with her computer she said that she would fill in paper forms and proceeded to ask me for all of my details, writing them down on the forms. Her writing was probably neater than mine but this kind of dictation was rather tedious and to be quite honest I’d rather have done it myself.

This process took at least half an hour. I was rather disappointed as all their marketing boasts of same day quick online setup, get your bank details and debit card same day and so on.

Finally she went back to her computer, and then said, “oh dear, it’s come back saying it needs head office approval, so we won’t be able to open this right now. Would you be available to come back later today?”

“No, I’m busy for the rest of the day. To be honest I was expecting all this to be done online as I’m not really into visiting banks even if they are open 7 days a week…”

“Oh that’s alright, once it’s sorted out we should be able to post all the things to you.”

“Right.”

“This hardly ever happens. I don’t know why it’s happened. Even if I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s rare but I have to wait for head office to approve the account.”

As she went off to sort something else out I overheard the conversation between the customer and staff member on the next table. He was telling the customer how his savings account couldn’t be opened today because it needed head office approval and it was very rare that this would happen.

I left feeling I had not achieved very much, but hopeful that it might get sorted out soon. It wasn’t a very encouraging start to my relationship with Metro Bank.

It’s now Tuesday 15th April, three days after my application was made or two working days, and I haven’t had any further communication from Metro Bank so I have no idea if my account is ever going to be opened. I don’t really have any motivation to chase them up. If I don’t hear soon then I’ll just go somewhere else.

I suppose in theory a bank branch that is open 7 days a week might be useful for technophobes who don’t use the Internet, but if the bank’s systems don’t work then all you’ve achieved is to have a large high street box full of people employed to tell you that everything is broken. Until 8pm seven days a week.

Update 2014-04-15 15:30: After contact on twitter, the Local Director of the Kingston branch called me to apologise and assure me that he is looking into the matter.

About 15 minutes later he called back to explain, roughly:

The reason the account was not approved on the day is that I’ve only been in my current address for 7 months, so none of the proofs of address would have been accepted. Under normal circumstances it is apparently possible to open an account with just a passport. If not then the head office approval or rejection should happen within 24 hours, but their systems are running a bit slowly. Someone should have called me to let me know this, but this did not happen. Apparently approval did in fact come through today – I am told someone was due to call me today with the news that my account has been opened. I should receive the card and cheque book tomorrow.

I’m glad this was so quickly resolved. I’m looking forward to using my account and hopefully everything will be smoother now.

Removing dead tracks from your Banshee library

I used MusicBrainz Picard to reorganize hundreds of the files in my music collection. For some reason Banshee spotted that new files appeared, but it didn’t remove the old ones from the library. My library had hundreds of entries relating to files that no longer existed on disk.

I would have hoped that Banshee would just skip when it got to a playlist entry that didn’t exist, but unfortunately (as of v2.4.1 in Ubuntu 12.04) it decides to stop playing at that point. I have to switch to it and double click on the next playlist entry, and even then it thinks it is playing the file that it tried to play before. So I have to double click again.

I have filed a bug about this.

In the mean time I wanted to remove all the dead entries from my library. I could delete my library and re-import it all, but I wanted to keep some of the metadata. I knew it was an SQLite database, so I poked around a bit and came up with this. It seems to work, so maybe it will be useful for someone else.

Get with the programme

Apparently my lack of any particular interest in the following things is like farting in nerd church:

  • Doctor Who
  • Firefly
  • Amanda Palmer
  • Brian Blessed

Nothing personal against any of these people/things. I just don’t really “get” them.

If you think suicide is weak or shameful, you just don’t understand

Recently, someone fairly well known in certain circles committed suicide. People commit suicide all the time of course, but this person could fairly be described as a form of genius, a polymath, hero to many. Since their sphere of influence was (is!) strongly Internet-based, the net has been alive for weeks with people feeling the need to comment upon it.

I haven’t made a comment upon it because I didn’t know this person. I knew of them, of many of their great works and deeds and philosophies. Didn’t agree with some of them, but there you go. Anyone who knew anything about this person knows that the world is much worse off to not have them in it, so no one needs to hear that from me. Speaking about their circumstances specifically though is something I still don’t feel comfortable about. It feels to me a bit too much like some sort of leveraging of grief in order to just make statements about oneself.

Yes, I do realise that by just saying that stuff I have passed comment and now you all know something of my politics and beliefs so I’m really cool for how much I care right? Well, I couldn’t avoid it as otherwise it ends up coming across like, “I don’t care that they died; I didn’t know them.”

This particular incident though, being fodder for Internet discussion by persons not closely emotionally tied to the deceased, has lead to me now seeing quite a few people expressing views like, “don’t hero-worship someone who killed themselves, they’re weak and selfish.” Or, “I’m so disappointed in them that they felt this was necessary.” Like, publicly expressing them, for the world to see. Some influential people.

I still, weeks later, can’t quite put into words how much I am disgusted with these sorts of comments, or even exactly why I am. This is my best attempt so far and it’s not really going very well is it?

This is not about the individual concerned; these are views that some people express whenever there is a suicide that is notable enough to be a topic of discussion, but emotionally remote enough from them that they feel able to “speak their minds.”

There is just some shocking level of arrogance involved when you say that someone was weak, selfish, acted shamefully, disappointed you (YOU, for fuck’s sake!) by ending their own life.

I don’t entirely (thankfully) know what goes through someone’s mind when they decide to end it all but I am pretty sure that they are in such a bad place that any thought of what other people will think has long ago ceased to have any positive effect and probably has the opposite instead.

I don’t know how to stop people killing themselves through despair. I don’t know what the best strategies are. But please just stop acting like suicidal people feel they have some sort of choice, that if they would just not let everyone down so much it would go better for them. I can’t begin to imagine that helps.

Their action must have come from a place where they truly believe no choice exists, and if you can’t sympathise with that then please at least maintain a respectful silence.

How do I send a message of praise to a tube driver’s manager?

Earlier today I was helping Mum to the station after she’d been down to stay with us for a few days. We were on the Piccadilly line, and I started to notice that the driver was doing a lot of talking. Apart from his upbeat and friendly tone—itself sadly a rarity it seems—he had something useful to say before each stop.

He was telling us things like:

  • Which side of the train the doors would open.
  • Where the elevators were located on the platforms and how many people could fit in them (“This elevator has a capacity of fifteen, one five, persons”!)
  • Short cuts for interchange between lines (“you’ll find it quicker to go up to the ticket hall but then do a U-turn and go back down to the Jubilee line”)
  • Between which stations it would be possible to make a mobile phone call.

Some of his attempts at humour may not have been to everyone’s taste…

Cross the platform for the District line to Barking. That’s Barking, woof woof!

…but looking down the carriage I saw more than one person with a smile on their face. On a dreary London afternoon that’s got to be a win.

As we started to reach Central London his comments became more like mini tourist information, calling out the interesting places that are near each station and I heard at least one person comment, “Oh I didn’t know that was there!”

I’ve lived in London since 2004 and I’ve never heard a tube driver put so much effort and personality into their announcements. It was a really welcome surprise; too often you can hear the exasperation in the drivers’ words and they don’t even say “please.” It’s worse than leaving it to the automated announcements.

No one loves their job all day every day and you can’t manufacture sincere enthusiasm, but it makes so much difference. Naturally we primarily want the trains to be punctual and reliable, but once that is covered, having an actually pleasant personality when dealing with the public also goes a long way.

So I was thinking, Transport for London employees probably just get a lot of grief when things go wrong, and a lot of the time that will be entirely out of their control anyway, but still they have to be the interface with the public and deal with it. Here is a chap that did personally go out of his way to do a good job; someone should say thanks. Maybe he’ll keep doing it. Maybe he’ll get others to do it.

I’d like to say thanks to him for making our journey entertaining and for helping to make London a more appealing city for our visitors. How do I make sure his manager sees this?

It was a Piccadilly line train headed for Cockfosters. It arrived at Piccadilly Circus at 13:20 Wednesday 29th August.

Update: Looks like it was this guy:

http://districtdave.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=picc&action=display&thread=19882

Opinions are divided!

Personally I would take his cheery announcements every day twice a day rather than the norm. Don’t stop!

Dear Intarweb, please provide ethics check

Earlier this evening I received a marketing email from a company I had never heard of, for an event I wasn’t interested in, to an email address I had only ever given to a differently, seemingly-unrelated company that we shall call Company U.

When this sort of thing happens it may be an indication that Company U has leaked their customer address database or else decided to sell the contact details on, so I’d sometimes follow it up instead of just opting out and consigning the address to the bitbucket forever.

In this case as many times before, I decided to have a whinge on twitter about it first.

Anyway to cut a long story short they got in touch, and it turns out that this marketing email has been sent by Company S. Someone from Company S emailed me to apologise and to remove my address from their list.

I asked this person how they obtained my email address that had only been sent to Company U, and they admitted that they used to work for Company U and that their “rampant CRM system” had somehow “indexed all of my PERSONAL emails”.

Now, from my point of view, this would actually suggest that this person has likely taken a database of customers of Company U with him to his new employer.

So, Internauts, do I have a duty to shop this guy to his former employer Company U? Or am I just frothing in my nerdrage here at the terrible inconvenience of being sent a piece of email I don’t want? Is the man a menace, or should I just get over it?