Annoyed with @amazon and their b0rked business model

Last week I was sent a $50 gift voucher: a very pleasant surprise.

English: First 4 digits of a credit card
English: First 4 digits of a credit card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I immediately loaded the voucher into my account (I had one of these long before I got an account) and then thought about what books I’d like to order – picked a couple and thought “that’s nice”.

Despite the website very plainly stating apropos gift cards –

We’ll automatically apply your balance towards your next eligible purchase.

– they did nothing of the sort. They simply billed my credit card.

And when, today, I asked them to rectify their mistake they told me the only way I could get the books charged to the gift card balance was to refuse to accept them when they were delivered so that they would be automatically returned to the United States and then I could place a new order.

Now, the chances of me being actually able to “refuse” a delivery by the Royal Mail (who, according to Amazon, do the fulfilment of the order once it gets to the UK) are in all practical terms, zero. Has anyone reading this in the UK ever refused a package from the Royal Mail? How often would they even get the chance? Quite often packages are left at the doorstep or with neighbours without any further thought.

But aside from that deeply practical consideration, what sort of a business are Amazon running that they are willing to shoulder all these costs (as they implied I would get both a full refund on the shipping costs of the refused order and a free upgrade to the fastest possible delivery method on the new order)? They certainly do not take carbon reduction seriously if this is how they propose to solve what ought to be a relatively minor problem – how can it be impossible to refund the credit card charge and bill the gift card? After all their proposed “solution” amounts to the same thing, just with the addition of significant inconvenience and delay for me, significant inconvenience and costs for them, and utterly unnecessary damage to the environment?

Surely it cannot be because their IT systems are not up scratch, can it? My guess is it is because they simply do not devolve enough power and responsibility to their customer service staff, who are left to propose this utterly bonkers way of working because it works for them and allows them to mark the problem as “solved” even though it must cost the company buckets. I do not blame the staff but the managers who allow this to arise.

PS: In fairness I should add that Amazon have given me a $15 dollar “promotional” certificate to compensate me for the inconvenience – that would be another cost to them – on top of all the additional shipping – if I accepted their “solution”.

PPS: The books I ordered were Elliptic Tales: Curves, Counting, and Number Theory and The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

What a brilliant book

Signature of Richard P. Feynman
Signature of Richard P. Feynman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just over three hours ago I started reading Richard Feynman‘s QED – The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Penguin Press Science): and now, 110 pages later, I am stunned at its brilliance.

If you are any sort of physics undergraduate you must read it. Similarly, if I was teaching ‘A’ level physics I would be handing it out to my students.

There is little maths in it and not much physics either – but as a way of explaining a high concept of physics – without cutting corners with bad analogies – it is just fantastic.

I’ve taken a break now because reading that much of a science book at more or less one sitting is not conducive to grasping all its points – but I am sure it will be finished either this evening or tomorrow morning.

Is all other science “unpopular” then?

The great British distaste for science goes on.

In a central London bookshop today I noticed that the only science books on sale were the ones badged as “popular science”: bad luck if you wanted something more in depth.

The book I want to write

The Design of the Unix Operating System is one of the best computing books I have read in a long time.

It is clear and easy to understand. (It’s also very cheap if you buy a second hand edition). But it is more than that too: as soon as you begin reading it you realise that it has been fundamental in fixing the culture of the Unix/Linux kernel development world. Indeed I wish I read it long before now as it would have helped me get a better fix on both Linux’s antecedents and on the mental world of the average kernel hacker.

That said it is old and somebody ought to rewrite it for Linux – maybe I will be able to do that some day.

Books on discrete mathematics for computing

My maths ‘A’ level is a long time ago (I actually did a further year of maths – albeit “maths for engineers” and so very cookbook like – at University) and, to be honest, I have never worked in a job where much beyond competent arithmetic has been required, so last year, when I started the MSc, the set theory rang some bells, but they were pretty muffled ones.

I got through last year and the exams, though that experience taught me that thinking “I remember this stuff” and actually putting the hours in to ensure you know it are very different. What’s more the prospect of my end of degree project and the need to read and understand a number of papers with some degree of mathematical formalism spurred me on to ensure that I had a firmer grounding in all of this.

My view has long been that books are the key that unlocks knowledge – if you can find the right book, read it and understand it then you will be most of the way there.

So, naturally enough I looked for books that would give me a good grounding/reminder over set theory, functions, relations and so on: the areas of discrete mathematics that matter most for computer scientists.

The first book I bought was Sets, Logic and Maths for Computing (Undergraduate Topics in Computer Science) but I would have to say I wasn’t hugely impressed. I could live with the description of the topic as one of the “undergraduate topics in computer science” because I suppose that is just what it is. But what annoyed me with it was the lack of worked through answers to all the exercises – what’s the point of putting exercises in a text book and then not explaining the answer? And then the explanations of some of the more complex issues was poor: there is a short, dense explanation and we move straight on to the partially explained exercises.

Happily, though, I found a better book: Discrete Mathematics for Computing.

It is a thinner (and more expensive!) volume but it does thoroughly explain the topics on which it touches and every exercise has a solution provided – it just does the job better.

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