BC Hydro: Just Give Me My Fucking Bill, OK?

Every month, I receive an email from BC Hydro. Here it is.

I can:

  • Make a payment (from your bank account by entering transit number, instituion number, and account number — essentially paying by cheque, in 2022 … but, okay)
  • See my payment options (Online banking, direct withdrawal, pre-authorized payments, equal payment plan, credit card, by mail, at a Service BC location (outside the Lower Mainland), Electronic Funds Transfer — fair enough, but I have never used any of these; I just want to see the bill, get the amount, and pay via my bank’s site)
  • View your detailed bill — yes, please! I mean, can’t you just attach it to the email? Thanks.
  • View your electricity use — this would, presumably, be on my bill
  • Join Team Power Smart. Um, what?
  • Set up pre-authorized payments — fair enough
  • Phone scam info. Okay, but you sent me an email
  • Payment options for my bill (again?)
  • Move or cancel account
  • How to read my detailed bill — well, if I had the bill I’d be able to follow along, right?
  • Get help. I feel I need it at this point. But probably not the kind of help they have in mind

I want to view my bill — I don’t care so much how “detailed” it is, and wish they’d just attached it to the email, but I click or tap the button. This is what I see, after signing in:

Keep in mind that I clicked/tapped a button in the email that said “View your detailed bill”. I kind of expect that I might, you know, see my bill. But no. I won’t bother to inventory the absolute mess of information that is irrelevant to my task here. Here is what I have to scan to find, every month:

Question: How is “View my bill” distinct from the original “View your detailed bill”? Where along the way did I lose the detail? What detail? Is it important? Okay, well, I guess I’ll settle for my dumbed-down bill: remember, all I really want is the amount so I can … oh yeah, pay the bill.

So I click/tap the teensy little button that BC Hydro apparently does not want me to see — for reasons I can’t guess. Don’t they want my money? Why is “Starting a Challenge” or “Joining the Team” (is this the Electricity Olympics?), or contests, or consumption — only the last 7 days, mind you; is this a teaser for the “detail” initially mentioned … why are any of these things and more, more important than what I was initially promised? Wait, what was that? Oh yeah, my bill. So, the microscopic button leads here:

This is only the content that fits on my 5K display. But once again, I’ve been sold a false promise: “View my bill” actually should read “Display yet another messy page of crap that really has nothing to do with your bill or anything else you might be interested in” — but maybe that (a) didn’t fit in the button; and (b) would have been too large a target, distracting from the truly important information on the page, like kWh and the projected cost of my next bill.

It seems that a once-a-month task provides just enough time to forget exactly where the thing I was looking might be located on the page (as far as I recall, this mess hasn’t changed in years; the incompetent consultants who put this together may have long-since retired to a tropical isle). But oh yeah, there it is!

Recall: I have been offered:

  1. “View your detailed bill” (email)
  2. “View my bill” (after authentication … also, why has “your” changed to “my”?)
  3. “View PDF bill”

So clicking/tapping the link, will I see my/your detailed/not-detailed/summary bill? It’s a mystery but at last I have reached my destination.

Dear BC Hydro: Just Attach My (Your?) Fucking Bill To The Email, OK?

iOS Weather Apps for Vancouver

I was nipping across Carrall Street for a guilty pleasure the other night and ran into the fellow who’s helped out at Glory Food Market since years before I moved into the neighbourhood. I suppose we were both feeling unimaginitive, as Oscar Wilde may or may not have thought, or at least said, but he said he doubted he’d be able to go for a cycle that evening, as he had the night before when he had been caught in rain. I said I thought he was safe in that respect, and he replied, you never know. Actually, you do, I said.

Well, almost. Thanks to a nifty weather service called Forecast, one can, on their iPhone or other device, get a very specific prediction of precipitation for the next hour :


I have found this aspect of the service to be fairly accurate. Overall, however, my experience with Forecast, and iOS weather apps in general, has been fraught. As a result I’ve turned into something of a weather app junkie. It seems a lot of others have as well, and the field is crowded. But it seems particularly difficult for most of them to get things right. For me, at the simplest level this means the ability to tell me accurately whether or not I need to carry an umbrella for the day. This is an important question in Vancouver for much of the year, and it is surprising how often most of the apps get it wrong, in my experience—and entirely anecdotally, but consistently enough over the course of a couple of years to be quite noticeable.

It is also surprising how tempting it is to try to live with the apps that sport a nifty user experience, or at least a beautiful data display. Weather apps are not usually “deep,” or I’m normally only interested in the initial display which purports to answer my basic question above; so interaction design—behaviour—is usually not bad, or not central. (I have quickly discarded those apps where it has been.) I have always been particular about the design of software, down to their icons: I am even loathe to ugly up my Springboard (or Dock) with anything but the best-finessed set of pixels. Luckily, I’ve found that there is generally a good correlation between the quality of  app design and  functionality.

Except for weather apps, or the predictions they provide for Vancouver. There are some nicely designed entrants, like Yahoo! Weather (although it has a lousy icon):


Unfortunately this app, along with almost all the others, cannot seem reliably to predict rain, and it doesn’t really matter how lovely an app looks if it doesn’t work. There is the Apple Weather app: it is easy to look at and I think it has been unfairly maligned, as it in my experience no less accurate than most of the others:


The Weather Network app seems to be among the most popular with people I’ve surveyed informally; unfortunately, along with suffering from the same general inaccuracy as the others, it looks a bit cartoonish:


There have been others, many others, with which I’ve experienced more or less the same results: being caught without an umbrella; or strolling through sunshine with one that has been reduced to functioning as a cane.

So I was excited when Forecast became available in Canada. It doesn’t look half bad, and it is easy to pick up and use its gesture-based interface (I like the little bouncy hint that’s displayed when it is first opened):


Forecast is “backed by a wide range of data sources, which are aggregated together statistically to provide the most accurate forecast possible for a given location.” (There are other apps, like Weathertron, which use the same consolidated data.)


Unfortunately, I’ve found that an average of wrong tends to be wrong. (It’s interesting to ponder why the inaccuracy. I have a colleague who told me a few years back he had a meteorologist friend who claimed that many of the weather services use computer modelling, rather than a meteorologist, to predict the Vancouver weather. Whether or why this would be the case, I don’t know.)

So I’ve been coming back again and again to the one app that seems to be able to answer my umbrella question most consistently. It is called Atmosphérique Pro, and while it and its icon are not the best of the lot, it is as far as I can tell the only weather app that uses, or uses exclusively, Environment Canada as its data source.


As another Vancouver “winter” approaches, I’ll keep Atmosphérique Pro on the first page of my Springboard, and continue to cast around for alternatives. If there’s a weather app you depend on, please leave a comment.

Gastown Buskers

The city seems to be pretty strict in enforcing the requirement for a busking license—I’ve known pretty good musicians who have been shut down—except, it seems, in Gastown, where I moved in early 2010. The “musicians” who play outside my building are enough to induce a trance, or the development of OCD.

In 2010-11, there was a rhythmless saxophone player who repeated a couple of be-bop riffs ad nauseam. His utter lack of meter was admittedly sort of fascinating: way, way beyond rubato, the beat seemed truly random, arguably unreproducible by anyone who can count.

In 2011-12, we had an accordion player—he seems to have graduated to other areas of the downtown; I’ve passed him on Granville and near Waterfront Station recently—who played the same couple of tunes over and over and over.

In summer 2013, there have been two regulars.

First is a fellow on clarinet who plays short phrases from “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” (What would the Duke think of that?) He seems also to have a vague recollection of some Gershwin. I think. It’s hard to tell. “Noodling” is a good word for it. And again, if there is a meter, I cannot detect it.


Worse, if that is even possible (and oh yes, it is), there a guy with a recorder who repeats the same five-note figure for hours. Hours. Five notes. I am not kidding. The busking conditions and guidelines state that there is a one-hour maximum: “After 60 minutes, you must move to a different location at least one full block away.” They should add a maximum for the number of identical phrases played within a two-minute span.

Obviously at least some of these people are mentally challenged; I’ve approached the recorder player, with plans to offer him twenty dollars if he will pack up for the night, and have received nonsensical responses. His loss. But having to close my windows or play Nine Inch Nails in order to drown out this sanity-challenging stuff is not  fun, and has become less so. Maybe these characters do have licenses; but I doubt it, and they don’t seem to be on display, as is required by the city.

I don’t think I’ve once heard anyone decent play on the street here. I’m not sure there’s anything to be done other than try to enjoy what might eventually be remembered as one of the last quirky things about the neighbourhood. At least we don’t have to listen to aspiring beat-boxers, I guess.

Roger Waters: The Wall Live, Vancouver BC, May 26 2012

I’m not really one for “classic rock.” The genre is still alive and, in 2012, producing music that at some point in the farther future may well considered “classic;” it seems a bit early to be proclaiming music that will stand the test of time. Thirty years is not a long span; we’re still within the lifetime of three of the four musicians who comprised Pink Floyd when The Wall was released in 1979. One of them, Roger Waters, brought a crack band (with no other members of Pink Floyd) and a frankly astonishing stage production to Vancouver a few days ago for a show at BC Place, at which the entire album, originally two LPs, was performed.

In great physical and musical shape at 68—he sings and plays bass—Waters managed to humanize the whole heavy album; he was clearly having a great time. It’s been ages since I heard this music; I was sixteen when it was released, so it brought back a lot of memories. In general Floyd hasn’t aged as well for me as some of the other bands of the era, but there’s some great music here. I was always surprised that critics didn’t seem to notice how the album stood out from the rest of the band’s work: it is not only more musically varied than their three preceding releases, never mind the less conventional work that preceded those, but also has some really tuneful compositions: not just the hit “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” (I prefer parts 1 and 3 myself), but “Mother,” “Hey You” (performed here behind a completed wall so the band was totally hidden), and “Comfortably Numb.” Not to mention a few good rock tunes, “In the Flesh,” “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell.” And not all the rest is filler. Even “The Trial,” a sort of show tune, worked pretty well as Waters mimed and performed various voices.

The themes of the work have, by Waters’ own admission, been broadened from his own original alienation and dissatisfaction with superstardom, and there were a lot of effective and affecting themes of exploitation and commercialization depicted visually. The sets and visuals are breathtaking. It’s almost impossible to describe in words the scale or indeed the beauty of the sets and in particular the images and animations projected on the wall and on the screen behind it. For once, exorbitant ticket prices seemed justified: it must take an awful lot of people and effort and money to pull this off and cart it around the world.

The crowd seemed a bit less enthusiastic than I would have expected, especially given the quality of the show and performance. But one thing I found interesting was that in the age of the Internet the general population seems better informed than I believe they would have been twenty or thirty years ago: clearly everyone knows who Roger Waters is, while during Pink Floyd’s heyday it would only have been the hardcore fans—like me—who knew the members’ names. If this show returned (I missed it in 2010), I’d go see it again; and I can’t say that for many concerts. On the other hand, I’m not that much more likely to go back to this music regularly now. Even if I still had my vinyl copy from ’79 (sadly, lost in a divorce), I don’t have a record player. But I did call up a few of the tunes on YouTube in the days following the show. At any rate, thank you Roger and all involved for a great night.

Photos © 2012 Stella Regina

The Costco Experience

I went to Costco the other day with a friend; I’d found myself there previously, once or twice, in similar circumstances. There was something about the place beyond the obvious that had kept me away. The obvious being, first, that it has an almost religious-military bent about requiring “membership,” and one isn’t even allowed to go in to see whether it might be worth signing up, membership carrying a fairly hefty $55 annual fee. Is the freedom to go into a retail store to decide whether you’re going to make a purchase not a basic right of consumption? Although I once got into a bit of an argument with one of the “bouncers” about this illogical policy—don’t, or can’t, they check for membership when and if you actually buy something?—this barrier was circumvented pretty simply, by turning around and entering through the exit, which in size is closer to a delivery bay entrance than a regular set of retail doors.

Another aspect of the lack of appeal for me is the obvious, and arguably crass, mass consumption represented by the place. Even in the middle of the city—there is a Costco nestled underground, or under roads and condos, near the sports palaces in Vancouver—it seems an oasis of suburbia. American suburbia. Everything is oversized; the enormous shopping carts make me feel like I’m a child pushing a regulation-sized cart (children’s carts not having been available as long ago as when I was that young). Often-large people driving large vehicles pile in enormous quantities of stuff that they probably don’t need, or at least I can’t fathom needing myself. It’s one of those places like London Drugs: who actually buys all this stuff, and how did anyone even come up with the idea of producing it? At any rate, being single I can’t imagine ever requiring the quantities offered: even if they do have a good deal on organic quinoa, I’m not sure how to calculate when I might get through four kilograms of it. Not to mention the membership surcharge which, if you’re not spending a lot of your money there, does increase the cost of everything beyond the sticker prices. I guess that’s the point.

But what struck me this time was the apparent mood of the shoppers. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they were interested in what they were doing, let alone happy. There was a universal glumness, a grey lifeless cast to the proceedings. I shop mostly at Whole Foods, and there’s a striking difference. I wonder if this is because Whole Foods shoppers are wealthier, healthier, or—perhaps partly as a result of both—not coming down from a sugar high. I am not sure, but can say that it is an interesting, even engaging place to be: there is such a range of appealing and sometimes even exotic foods there, that cooking becomes an adventure, even—or especially—for a vegan like me. Costco doesn’t even have many of my staples, from tempeh to collard greens; it’s mostly pre-packaged and processed foods. Although Whole Foods is not as expensive as some people claim—Nesters in Gastown is far pricier, for instance—it seems to me that cost is beside the point, to an extent, if you’re not being wasteful and you can shop in an environment that doesn’t feel like a Soviet-era Russian warehouse. But then I’m willing to pay something for experience. I do this with technology and art and music and books, too. Think usability, venue, typography and paper stock; think Munro’s or Elliot Bay versus ChaptersApple Store as compared to, say, NCIX. When you’re buying retail goods, the environment and service are part of the product: it’s called customer experience. Why should shopping feel like you’re procuring for your squad in a big, unhappy army?

Obakki Gastown Closes

Is the Gastown business model failing?

L / 3 = s

(Monthly lease divided by three equals the retail price of a shirt)

Notice also how they don’t actually announce they’ve closed? I’ve noted this trend before. They didn’t fail: they are “100+ stores and counting” and “growing louder.”

Obakki Gastown

Closed for “Renovations”

I’ve noticed recently a few businesses around Gastown have closed and have posted notices stating that they are “under renovation,” suggesting a future reopening, when it seems that this is not the full truth. This happened with the Subway shop on Water Street: for ages there was a sign indicating the location would reopen, but eventually all signage was taken down (and there’s now a Subway on Hastings, in the Woodwards building). The same thing now seems to have occurred with the Budget rental location at Abbott and Pender: there has been no indication of pending renovations in the months that it’s been closed, and I expect that eventually the signs will be taken down quietly and a new condo building will appear on the site.

Why do businesses do this? Perhaps it’s to protect their brand: indicating that a location is permanently closed could be seen as an admission of failure. However, this is just a guess on my part.

Budget car rental "Closed for Renovations" sign