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EU cookie tracking law is impotent

9 June 2013 1 comment

So in Europe (I mean the EU but it’s a clumsier phrase) we have a cookie law, and web sites must ask your permission to store data about your web visit using things called cookies. Those in Europe accessing European web sites may have seen little panels at the bottom of the site “by using our site you consent to our use of cookies… click here to dismiss”

Yet there are also tracking services that we seem to be unable to opt out of.

I installed a browser plugin called Ghostery on Firefox and Opera (the only two browsers I really use). It tells me how many tracking web sites are embedded in a page and lets me block them. It can detect thousands of different trackers.

Facebook only has one tracker, the Football Association has two, Heart FM has four, and the Mail Online (I only went to check their count!) has nine. This blog, I’m ashamed to say, has three, but I don’t host it myself, it’s the price I pay for a low-maintenance blog. Except it’s you that’s paying the price D:.

This is just a law designed to protect us failing, and inconveniencing us instead. I’m sure the intention of the law was to save privacy of citizens, but it turned into saving the privacy of citizens only if cookies were used to track them. Law can’t keep up with technology at the moment.

Get Ghostery for five popular browsers here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Facebook is invading

16 March 2012 Leave a comment

Facebook is becoming pervasive. There are many, many sites now offering a “sign in with Facebook” option – in fact, when I signed up for a trial with NetFlix in the UK, this was the *only* way to sign up.

There was an initial backlash when Facebook created this technology and sites included it – sometimes, comments they had made on other people’s Facebook posts were appearing on other sites. The details have been tweaked, and, some time later, I don’t see anyone complaining any more. Those that did complain were in the know (i.e. at least slightly techie) and paranoid.

My friend likes cars, and posts on a UK car enthusiasts site. Based on what he’s said, fe seems to have linked his Facebook account to the car site, and, once the car site went live with an update to their back end, suddenly *everything* he posted on the car site also appeared on Facebook. And he didn’t like that.

Now, as far as I am concerned, Facebook know too much about me. They know a couple of hundred acquaintances of mine, relationships, whom I’ve been photographed with, and stacks of other stuff. I even stupidly put all the countries I’ve visited since I was born in last month. This data (not mine, but everybody’s, combined) is the gold-dust of the coming ten or twenty years. Massive amounts of, personal data. If you’re logged on to Facebook, Facebook can track you as you

In a way, I am really glad that Google+ is not taking off. (For example, there are plenty of “sign on with Facebook” sites, but not many “sign on with Google+” sites.) Because not only would Google collect the data Facebook get, they have years of learning what to do with it, and they can also aggregate it with all the data they get by selling adverts. A quick Google (oh, how ironic!) suggests Google own between 38% and 55% of the search market, so the chance is that if you hit a web site, the adverts are served by Google, and so they increase their knowledge of your surfing habits. And also your shopping habits, your leisure interests, even your hobbies, passions and most secret secrets – if you use the web for that kind of stuff.

I was prompted to write this for two reasons. One was a blog post by some techie dude who tried out a lot of new technologies. He was trying some new social media app and said something like “I usually select the ‘sign on via Facebook’ option because these things need to know about your contacts, and that would mean I have to enter hundreds of pieces of data.” What? He’s obviously a techie (from his blog; truest me on this), so he knows the possibilities, but he chooses to *give* all this data to someone else just to make his life more convenient. He really should know better!

When you sign on via Facebook, you have to install a Facebook app and the Facebook site lists what the app is allowed to do. Here is what an app I used to enter a competition today says it will get access too:

  • Access my basic information
    Includes name, Profile picture, gender, networks, user ID, list of friends and any other information I’ve made public.
  • Access my data any time
    may access my data when I’m not using the application.
  • Post on my behalf
    may post on my behalf, including scores, achievements and more.

Well, all I wanted to do was enter a competition, and now I have granted access to all my networks (that may include you, if you know me on Facebook – sorry!) and data. And, when I actually entered the competition, I had to provide my email address again!

The other reason that’s spurred me to write this is that my son plays an on-line game – an empire building game – and I decided to join him. The game is an established one, there is even a third-party market for things like strategy guide. The producer has released a version 2.0 which – surprise surprise – includes a link to Facebook. You can use Facebook to tell your friends that you’ve made an advance, conquered a rival, whatever. Of course, this is free advertising for them. And to sweeten the deal, you gain resources (an in-game term for wood, iron, etc.) for every Facebook friend you have. But, everyone who does this are giving all that information to another company.

I regularly review my Facebook apps, and trim them. These days if I enter a competition via Facebook, I immediately delete the app. I would encourage you all to review your Facebook apps, and decide which ones you really need.

Again, I’m glad that Google aren’t succeeding in this market yet, because they probably remember more about your web surfing than you do. Really, they probably do.

Categories: Uncategorized

Albums of my life #1

16 November 2011 Leave a comment

Albums shape a lifelong love of music. My daughter has one favourite album that she plays almost non-stop.

And so it was for me when I was a teenager.

Back in those days, it was popular to tape your vinyl albums onto tape, and typically it was pick-and-mix as to what went onto each tape. A C-90 (I favoured the TDK ADX, but they did not appear until the nineties) would normally hold two albums (45 minutes on each side). I was lucky that Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell” ( I really should sort out my Amazon associate links to earn from the dozens of viewers/readers I have) combined with Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” on the same tape. For one hot summer (and the following autumn, and sporadically afterwards,) this was my musical poison. I’m sure that I didn’t get these albums until the early eighties, as they were released in 1976 and 1977 respectively, but they ended up on the same tape, sometime in the early eighties.

For a young lad living in central Scotland, these were, to a great extent, the taste of something foreign, exotic, and unattainable. Thin Lizzy were big in the USA, and wrote of it. Songs like “The Boys are Back in Town” spoke of a freedom (I was not yet a teenager) that couldn’t even think about. Similarly, Meat Loaf sang about girls, getting to the fourth base, breathless nights, and so on, with a similar effect on me.

Musically, Bat Out of Hell is outstanding. Much of it is shaped by songwriter im Steinman’s piano and Todd Rundgren’s guitar, and the production allows them space to flourish and (especially in Rundgren’s case) show off. I’m pretty sure that no album of that time sounded like this one, it was a true ground breaker, and I’m also sue that they set a precedent of power-rock followed by power-ballad that is still emulated today, influencing bands such as Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Musically, the Thin Lizzy album was a revelation to me. I’d grown up on punk (distorted guitars) and then onto heavy metal (distorted guitars). It was strange to find the clean and intricate guitars of Gorham and Robertson counterposed with distorted riffs, clean reverb-tinged solos and (shock) space for the rest of the song to breathe. Songs like “Angel From the Coast” and “Romeo and the Loney Girl” show this. Of course, the Meat Loaf album also left space, but the piano is a semi-percusive instrument that tends to fill space, and, of course, requires a rhythm to drive it. And remember that I heard all this through the ears of a wannabe guitarist. Even today I realise that these albums, especially the Thin Lizzy one, remind me that there’s more than one way to make a great song, and subtlety is an important tool. I hope that the current production mores, where the sound is compressed to fill all space, resulting in *everything* sounding good, and yet leaving the listener tired after an hour or so, will pass, and we will once again learn to listen to a huge dynamic range and enjoy what the composers and producers intended us to hear, instead of mastering an album to compete with ever other “in your face” mix that abounds.

Both albums have their hits, of course, I’m not backing losers here, even though 30-35 years have passed. Two of Thin Lizzy’s most memorable songs, “The Boys are Back in Town” and “Cowboy Song”, plus, of course, the concert favourite “Emerald,” featuring duelling guitars are on this album. The trademark harmony guitars are in evidence, of course.

“Bat Out Of Hell” spawned singles too – in fact, according to Wikipedia, just about every track was a single, somewhere. Most did not make the top ten, as the singles were not radio-friendly (back in those days, at least, they were not radio freindly; I’m sure they helped to mold the consequent radio-friendly Bon Jovi/G’n’R/Starship type of radio-oriented rock that we get nowadays, and if released again, would all hit the charts hard).

When I listen to these albums now, I’m transported back to my carefree (in retrospect) youth, my easily excited early-teen stage. I can still recall the smells, sights and sounds of that first summer I spent with these albums, falling asleep to the cassettes waking up and switching them back on, and I am reminded of many other memories that are linked to that time – Tom Russel’s Rock Show on Radio Clyde, Tommy Vance on the Friday Rock Show, seeing great bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden, time spent with my friends in their houses, listening to music, driving around in their cars, and many, many more.

Categories: Uncategorized

The red mist descends

15 November 2011 Leave a comment

So, the winter approaches, and suddenly drivers get a chance to use that button on their dashboard. It is *so* frustrating having a feature in their cars, and not being able to activate it whenever they like. And now, they have an excuse to use it, so they *do*.

I’m talking, of course, about the rear fog lamps. These uber-bright lamps are designed to pierce through fog, spray, and so those following you at an inappropriate speed can avoid striking you.

They are so bright that they can obscure brake lights, and I find that they draw the eye in a hypnotic way. This makes them actually rather dangerous. But many people who use them are unaware of this, and switch them on. leave them on, and forget them. The result is that their brake lights may be missed, or other vehicles near their own may be missed by other drivers, which is, of course, rater dangerous.

So, what’s the deal with these? When should you use them? When can you *not* use them?

I visited the UK government web site, which has this page on driving in adverse weather conditions taken from the latest Highway code, which every driver road user should read every few years, certainly when a new edition is published.

It says (and I love this because it says what you must not do:

236 You MUST NOT use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226) as they dazzle other road users and can obscure your brake lights. You MUST switch them off when visibility improves.

And, for completeness,

226 You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). You may also use front or rear fog lights but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves (see Rule 236).

Hopefully the geeks can avoid the cyclic dependencies. But there you have it. If you can see 100 metres, then you should switch off your fog lights. A good rule for rear for lights is: If you can see the headlamps of the car behind you, then he can see your normal lights, and so you should switch off your fog lights. Of course, this suggests that you use your mirror quite a lot, and I’m perfectly sure not everyone does. . .

I have a lot to say on middle-lane hogging, which is at least as bad in Europe as it is in the UK. (In fact, on the M25/M20 to and from Dover, the European drivers are *worse* than the UK ones.) But I’ll save that for another day.

Categories: Real Life, Uncategorized Tags:

How to get the best from twitter – my take

1 October 2011 2 comments

Initially, I didn’t get twitter. Initially, I thought that it was phone-based, and consisted mainly of people posting messages like “I’m at club Wambo.” And I didn’t need to know that. I didn’t want to know it. And I didn’t want text messages being sent at any hour just because some Stephen Fry is on his way to the BAFTAs or something like that.

However, twitter is useful on the PC. But you need strategies to get the most out of it.

First, the basics. With twitter, you send short messages, called tweets. They are public, and get stored, and are searchable. So, every message you send is a public message (there ARE direct messages, which are not publicly viewable, being a bit like an SMS between only two people) You can subsequently delete all tweets from the database, but as they might have been seen before you got around to tweeting them, you should consider them private.

If every tweet went to every user, it would be chaos. So you choose whose messages you see by “following” them. Then, when they tweet, all followers get a copy of a tweet. Simple.

You can “mention” someone by using their twitter username – one of mine is @dumbledood so if you wanted to message me, just include @dumbledood in the message. And as I’m mentioned, twitter sends me a copy, even if you don’t follow me. (And I get an email too, but I think that’s my choice, and can be turned off.)

A hashtag is a word, abbreviation, or acronym preceded by the hash character (#). (Some Americans have been known to call this the pound symbol, and others the square. Fortunately the word hashtag has made it into popular use, so hopefully the symbol will be universally known as ‘hash’ soon. ) When you use a hashtag, you’re marking your tweet as related to that tag, whether it be a #winwinsituation or a #badafternoon. As you will find out later on, these hashtags can be used with searches. And you can make up your own, in the hope that they go into use, or just to sum up a concept in fewer words than it would take in English (or Flemish, or Tagalog). Hashtags can’t contain spaces, so they are helpful in abbreviating messages to the 140 characters that twitter allows.

If you see a particularly excellent tweet, then you can “retweet” it. Then, all your followers (in my case, a mere 44) will get this excellent tweet sent to them.

Prolific tweeters are not always good people to follow. I only want to cope with maybe 50 messages a day, in total – I’ll check with my morning cuppa, again when I get home from work, and maybe during the evening. I don’t want to follow someone who posts his every move – as I’m unlikely to be interested in their moves, I barely care about my own these days. So, before I follow someone, I check out their posting rate – if they’ve posted 40 times in the last hour, I’m not going to follow them. Also, I review my daily tweet-feast, and so sometimes I unfollow people who post too much. That gives us strategy one – limit your input.

But some people post interesting posts, and I still want to get these gems of wisdom, but I don’t want to see their conversations with other people (@otherperson messages). So, I use a program called Tweetdeck which automatically filters mentions to other people out. So, if Stephen Fry is discussing ducks with @dennis, and sexuality with @steve, then I am spared the details, but I get his latest witty post on London Taxis, which mentions no-one. So strategy two – use an app that filters the noise out.

So, I’m fairly happy with my twitter life. I follow friends, and some other people who make good posts, or tweet about things I agree with. Oh, all my followers and who I follow is public knowledge, you can view their profile, those following, and those that they follow via Twitter. This may be a configuration option, but whenever I gain a new follower, I get an email from twitter telling me about them (and how many they follow, how many follow them, and how many tweets they’ve made).

The next step is searches. With Tweetdeck, I can search for things that are posted publicly, not just within my following/followers group. And so, I can search for posts on my favourite football team, posts that mention my village, my favourite food, whatever. I don’t have to follow these people, and they won’t know I’ve seen their message. But I can use them to see what’s going on in my village, and if (for example) if I had a commute along the M4, I might search for “M4” from about four o’clock, to get an idea of how the traffic is.

With Tweetdeck, each search goes in a separate column. You can have a column for posts by your friends, mentions, direct messages, and lots of searches, plus other stuff that I don’t use. So, I have at least 5 columns – my feed from friends; mentions – in case I miss them in my feed, because that would be rude; direct messages – although I think I’ll lose that one; a search for my village, and for the town near it.

This means that I can keep my main feed clean, only the people I’m really interested in, and still be kept up-to-date on what’s happening when people mention my village or town. You can search for any word or words, including hashtags, and, in Tweetdeck, I can filter OUT posts that match my search, so I don’t get news about children with snakes on “Britain’s got talent” when I search for my village name. (And those posts are still going on, even months later!) This gives us strategy three – exploit the power of searches.

Now, how often do I tweet? I probably post my own tweets less than five times a day, on average, unless I am replying to an @mention, but I do retweet anything that I think might interest my followers. This is because I don’t want to be the victim of strategy one, of course!

And the last thing I want to talk about is multiple identities. Here’s how I use it: I *love* Formula One, and there are lots of F1 tweeters – teams, journalists, wry observers, and, of course, just fans like me. And there are a lot of tweets. With strategy one in place (limit your input) I can’t follow them all, but, on the race weekend, if I have the time, I like to absorb these tweets when the races are broadcast. So, I don’t follow them with my main account, I use another one, specifically for following F1. (I have another one for gurning but it’s not as prominent in tweet-land.

Tweetdeck lets me manage multiple accounts really easily, so on race days, I can simply add a column that shows updates from all the F1 people that I follow (and another for mentions, as I’d hate to miss them). Tweetdeck allows me to keep my two feeds – the real me, the gurner, and the F1 nut – entirely seperate, and when I tweet, I can tweet from any of my accounts

I can also open a search for the #F1 and #BBCF1 hashtags, but, to be honest, they move far too quickly to be of any use – I reckon there might be 50 messages a second when Martin Bundle does a grid walk before a race. And, interestingly, I have even used strategy one on this account, as I had followed a lot of F1 team accounts that only posted marketing-speak spamvertisments or boring updates that were obvious from the TV coverage . So, now I’m down to some people who really interest me on that, too.

And, on this account, I post like crazy. I don’t care that people might use strategy 1 on me – I’m like a child using a hose (I literally mean a hose; this is not a strange sexual reference) in his his swimming trunks for the first time. It’s fun, and I don’t care that other people are watching, how could having this much fun be embarrassing? I use the #F1 and #BBCF1 hashtags judiciously, and I have had occasional retweets and replies from strangers, so even if I am just posting rubbish, it’s rubbish that people want, when they see it. And, I’ve come up with some fantastic ideas, all publically available on my feed. If I was into rallying, cycling, whatever, I might create accounts *just* for following a specific group of tweeters at specific times. Which gives us strategy four – exploit multiple accounts.

So, without apps like tweetdeck, the newcomer on the field, Google+ is not going to change the world. I think that their lack of openness and desire to control will be their downfall, Google will stifle apps like this unless they are developed in-house.

I should tell you that I edited that sentence, initially I started “I fear …,” and changed it to a less hackneyed phrase, but as I changed it, I realised that actually I fear that they have no downfall. They are seriously bigger, badder, and know more about you than anyone else. Everyone uses Google, their cookies are everywhere, every time a web site serves up an ad from Google, they know about it (sportswear – remember that!). We must support the underdog, and avoid everyone jumping on the best of breed at the time. Diversification is not just useful, it’s essential, how many years have we taken to throw off the DS-DOS mentality? If you want to do a good deed today, go and look for a small guy and plump him up. Please do not interpret that last sentence literally!

Categories: Uncategorized

Online Privacy – what you need to know

26 September 2011 Leave a comment

After facebook updated their UI recently, there was a spate of “Do me a favour, hover over my name and uncheck such-and-such a box. I prefer to be private” messages.

Well, let me tell you, you have no hope of retaining your privacy online. Everything you do online is extremely *un*private, and there is very little you can do about it, no matter who checks what.

There are several reasons for this.

  1. Systems change. You might think that you are safe, with the current web site you use. But, then, they change it without your permission, changing features, and, I imagine, prompting the above.
  2. Someone will leak whatever is available to them. Whether it’s deliberately and maliciously, or if their computer is infected with malware, each person/account who can see your posts, photos, whatever, can copy them, save them, and use them later
  3. The website itself can have a security problem. There are countless examples of this, where there is a mistake in a web site, and people can access other people’s accounts, just by a bit of technical jiggery-pokery, or even at random!
  4. The website may have a rogue employee, who harvests some data. I’ve had this happen to me several times, I use a unique email address for most web sites, and a couple of times they’ve been used to send spam to me.
  5. The website can change their terms and conditions at will, and, often, they already own everything you produce on their site – have you checked the T&C for the sites you use? In detail?

This problem has been boiling for years. Eleven years ago I bought and read a book called “Database Nation” about privacy, the electronic trail you leave, and how it would inevitably become impossible NOT to be tracked by databases. Store loyalty cards, automated registration recognition, all store details on a database.

As an example of this, we drove to Portsmouth for an early morning crossing to France, on holiday, a year or two ago. About a month afterwards, I received a letter from a DC, who said that an act of vandalism had occurred the morning we traveled along the M3, and my  car had been one of the last to pass the spot before the incident occurred Рdid I see anything suspicious?

Let’s think about this – the time of passing, and registration numbers of all cars going along the M3 were logged in a database that was available some time after the event. (The letter was not sent for over a month – why sit on the letter, they would have sent it out ASAP, yes?) Given the number of very public security lapses with computer systems, including civilians employed by police forces being dismissed for making irregular and unneeded queries on databases, how safe is this data? And what if this was not a police force, but an online concern that is maximising profit by using unvetted, offshore workers? What if you were suspicious of your other half, and a private eye had a friend who could access data on where cars had been seen? A bit like phone hacking, if you know what to do. Forgetting the police example, how safe is your other info, E.g. email address, credit card, CVC, or, possibly, the password that you use for another 20 sites?

So, almost nothing you do is private. Credit cards, store cards, there are databases everywhere, and data is increasingly being correlated between them. When you start buying organic food, and your store suggests offers on other organic (or other “healthy”) food, this is a single-database action. When you visit lots of guitar-related web sites, and all your social network site adverts start advertising guitar lessons, this is matching across more than one database (well, it’s not, as I’ll explain below, but it serves as an example that people can hopefully understand for now).

Once, my friend went to his local store, and paid (this is back in the days of signature strips on credit cards) with a card the store did not accept, but the teller (poor boy) let him go through the process of swiping and signing. They contacted him (I now wonder how?), explaining they didn’t accept the card, and would he provide details of another one, and he told them to take a hike. Later, he found that they’d later attempted to charge the transaction a different card that he did own, and had used at the store previously. This was for a fairly trivial amount, yet someone was prepared to manually go through credit card receipts, match card names (and, presumably, signatures), then make a false transaction. These days, with everything online, that search would be *so* much easier to do, the match could be done instantly, and on a much higher volume. And it is, not just on store purchases and credit cards. Match your pharmacy payments to your health, so that life insurers get a better idea of how long you’ll live? It’s not far-fetched at all.

So, why is my example of my the guitar adverts above a bad one? It’s all about cookies. Cookies are a way for a web site to “remember” you. The benign view is that it helps you to “remember” the web site, but the balance of power is all on the web site’s. So, youtube, facebook, etc. all remember your login, maybe even auto-log you in, this is all through cookies. There’s a convenience for you, but that’s only part of the story. (Remind me to tell you why free WiFi is bad because your cookies are visible to everyone in the coffee shop when you hit your favourite sites, and people can impersonate you.)

Web sites can be divided up into parts. To the users, they all seem to be part of the same, coherent site, but it can be made up of content from many different sites (often visible on a slow connection, when the page changes shape as different parts arrive). Often the adverts are served from different sites. This is because then the advert-serving sites can count accurately how many views they get, they do not trust the host website to say “Yeah, we served up your adverts 20,000 times today, that’ll be $500 please.” But, although there is no convenience for you, each of those portions of a page can set their own cookies.

Now cookies are a two-way communication. The web site can ask “give me my cookie for the username” and the browser will respond. And the web site can say “give me my secret tracking cookie” and the browser will respond. The value returned, knowing which page you are retrieving, allows the advert site to track you arround. First, you were on the social media site, now you’re home shopping, now a bit of music. The advert site will mke a correlation with your surfing habits, and will serve adverts that are more likely to get notices. So, in this case, it’s not a cross-database correlation, all the correlation is done by the advert-serving site.

And, whenever you visit a site, and there’s a “like” button on it, that link is being made, not just by advert tracking site(s), but by your social networking site.

(As an aside: and, with a new social networking site on the horizon, owned by the biggest advert-serving corporation in the world, what hope do you have if you use that one? )

The bottom line is that you can expect no privacy at all online. It used to be the case that cookies could be deleted in browsers, but there are now “super-cookies” which are much harder to delete. Wherever you go, it’s logged. Your internet address is logged, and this can be used to tie you to a geographical area. Coupled with your browser (web sites can detect plugins, screen resolutions, and all sorts of bizarre stuff), this can be enough to uniquely identify you, especially if you use an unusual browser like me (Opera) with a huge screen (1920×1200 :-)). I’ve given feedback to websites and have them contact me, not with a response, but to ask how I find their website with my particular browser!

And, all your kids are leaving an online presence too. You’re probably doing it for you until they’re twelve or so, but it’s happening. Even in 1998, I used to do an internet search when reviewing job candidate CVs, and in one case found some very (ahem!) material on one candidate. When your kids apply to uni or for a job, their online shadows are going to be searched. They need to be extra-careful what they post. And the internet *never* forgets – web pages are cached by Google, archived by non-profits such as the Wayback Machine, and who knows what criminal organisations can do with the information.

A final thought, it’s getting difficult to recruit police, as every 17-year old has an online presence with images that can be used to identify them. There can be no plain-clothes work for anyone in the days of reverse image search – put an image into a search engine, and it will try to match it with ones it’s seen already.

I can provide references for every assertion I’ve made, but I’m very tired and semi-offline, so digging them out is not easy. If there’s enough response, I will add references, and if you need a particular one, then just post a comment (they are moderated, it won’t appear immediately.)

Categories: online, Uncategorized

Plain sailing

1 August 2011 Leave a comment

Well, after making the trip many times, it’s time to review the state of the crossings between France and the UK.

I’ve travelled on the Dover to Calais route, with both sea France, and with P&O. I’ve also travelled on the Dover to Dunkirk route with DFDS
Seaways. I have not used the tunnel at all, apart from a coach trip about eight years ago.

So, who is the best to travel with? I’m not going to answer that straight away, but I have some observations.

In the past, we, as a family, used to holiday in France, roughly every other year, and generally we travelled from Portsmouth to Cherbourg on the “fast craft” catamaran. These are small vessels, and so the shop is small, there isn’t a choice of restaurants, and so on. There’s only really enough seats to go round, and these are either very regimented (all facing the same way) or in the bar area. If you want to go outside, there’s a tiny windblown area at the back that you can share with the smokers. The big advantage is the speed, both of the crossing, and unloading at the far end. (How long can it take to unload a small boat? Not long).

But what about Dover to the continent, as I’ve been doing on over a dozen trips in the last three months?

Firstly, Sea France. I’ve only made one one-way crossing, and I hated it. The ferry was old, almost decrepit, and the staff were rude and surly. The food was not to my taste – I didn’t eat anything there, it just didn;t take my fancy. I was glad when the trip was over, certainly. The only reason that I chose them was because they were much cheaper than the others for a one-way trip. I would endure it again if it saved me a tenner, in fact, as I wouldn’t eat, it would save me a more than that! I have another one-way trip coming up, and will see if I have to try them again.

Secondly, P&O. They have both old and new vessels, and the old ones are pretty typical – choice of self-service and bistro restaurants, plus coffee and bar areas. There are different “vibes” in the different seating areas and generally you can find a quiet place if you want some peace and quiet. They are large vessels, and there’s plenty of space, generally. Big Big gaming areas, an old feel “pub” bar area, typical of state of the art a decade or two ago.

The new P&O boats are beautiful inside, and feature a restaurant with a huge, double-height panoramic view forwards. The boats have a similar mixture of facilities to the old ones, although it’s not as easy to find a quiet area. Outside is great too, there is a snack bar, the deck area is a large two-tier affair, and, of course, separate smoking area. On both old and new P&O boats, the food is typically british – fish and chips, sausage or pie and mash, curry – and just under a tenner for a main meal, which I think is a little more than a motorway services, although the food is better and portions might be larger. They are well geared-up to serve the initial rush, and there’s always space to sit down.

In the summer, this is the preferred route for school trips, and for several weeks I heard the tannoy requesting that teachers from such-and-such a school should report to the information desk (to collect misdemeaning pupils, I assume). On these trips, the staff are on their toes all the time, children are constantly being reprimanded by staff for running or shouting, and the kids generally add a huge amount of noise and energy to the crossing. On these occasions, there really is no place where peace can be found. The freight lounge must be a haven of calm in these situations. I enjoy their energy and antics, but others seem to spend half their time getting upset and asking the girls (as it nearly always is) to keep it down a little. The girls give a huge shriek/giggle as they move off by ten feet or so, then resume fever pitch.

And now, the Dover to Dunkirk route. (Why do the British insist on re-spelling the names of foreign towns and cities? We should write Dunkerque and Bruxelles, not Dunkirk and Brussels, for example). The first time I saw the DFDS boat sail into the port at Dunkerque, I was amazed – it looked totally modern, almost sci-fi like, a huge wall of glass at the front. Inside, it’s, as you expect, modern and shiny, and has that panoramic view out front that’s on the new P&O boats.

Every time I’ve eaten in one of these in peak season, the tills have been unable to cope with the volume of traffic – mainly, they say, as it takes much longer to process a card transaction. So, we stand in a queue facing an idle crew over a serving space full of hot food, but we don’t get served until the queues die down. I guess it’s good that they want us to enjoy the food at it’s best, and their fish and chips is far superior to the rather greasy P&O offering. So, the scenario goes like this. More customers enter, see the queue for hot food, and grab a salad or just a drink instead, and join the queue for the till, increasing the queue length and delaying the serving of hot food even further! Food selection and prices are on par with P&O, and I’ve noticed that if you wait until the second half of the journey, you get bigger portions of curry. (Not that I ever take the curry, I’m just a nosey (or is that observant) bugger.). The pies and fish are obviously unable to be upsized as easily!

DFDS provide (free) booklets on tours and sights to see in Europe, including war areas and wine-producing regions. These are really nice, large, glossy, well-produced, and give you the idea that this is a quality company that cares about its customers. The DFDS boats seem a little smaller than the P&O ones, and once I was on a trip that was fully booked, and the boat could barely cope. There were families with small children sitting on the carpet, and they opened the freight driver’s lounge to the public – much to the annoyance of the regulars (“Pay a thousand quid to get in here and they get let in for free” neatly avoids the idea that the 38-tonne lorry is free. )

DFDS make a big thing about Dunkerque being nearer to many destinations. That’s true, but there is a bit hitch. Firstly, the ferry terminal is nowhere near the town. There’s a sign on the motorway that says “Dunkerque 20km” but at that point, you still have 40km to go. And the last part of that trip is on slow roads through a semi-indistrial area. The first time I made my way there, I was glad there were signs at each junction, because I thought that there could be nothing for the public in the wasteland I was driving through. To measure the real difference in time, I toggled my satnav between Calais and Dunkerque, and the time difference is 13 minutes. The Dunkerque ferry crossing takes 30 minutes longer, so there is a net loss in journey time. (The ferry doesn’t take a straight line from Dover to Dunkerque, it takes a short line across the busiest international seaway in the world then hugs the coast of France – it almost straight past Dover, and, as you know, a car would be much quicker than a boat. )

Finally, a word about customer service. One time I inadvertently booked Dover->Calais->Dover with P&O, instead of Calais->Dover-Calais. I arrived at the check in at about three in the morning, and was told of my error. The kind fellow tried to alter my booking (for free) but the sailing had
been locked and he couldn’t do so. So he sent me to the ticket office. As it was early, I incorrectly walked into the Sea France ticket office
instead. I told them of my mistake and asked if I there would be a fee to amend my booking. No, I was told, I would need to make a completely new
booking! Yikes! Then, after attempting to get my details from my original booking, and the reference not working, I realised that I’d gone to the
wrong office. At P&O, they amended my booking for free! Another time I was running late after a series of incidents along the M25, and worried I’d not make my DFDS sailing. I phoned customer services (hands free, honest, guv) and they told me my ticket was valid for the sailing before or after the one I’d booked, subject to space being available. P&O allow two crossings either side, but they have a more frequent service.

So, overall, I choose P&O whenever I can but avoid the fish and chips (I’ve tried it several times). When their prices are too high, I choose DFDS and a little more time to eat.

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