Monthly Archives: May 2008

PayPal reliability problems

paypalPayPal appear to be having major reliability issues over the last few weeks. When someone buys my software through PayPal I should get a PayPal notification email and PayPal should send an IPN to e-junkie. The IPN to e-junkie causes a temporary licence key to be emailed to the customer immediately and the full details of the transaction to be emailed to me (I then send a permanent licence key at my leisure). But sometimes the IPN is sent 30+ minutes after purchase. The leads to very unhappy customers. They have paid for their licence and they want the key. Now. Other times the PayPal notification email never arrives. This is less of a problem, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.

It is not just me having these problems. I have seen complaints on quite a few blogs and forums. The problems seem to be particularly acute for subscription payments. This is causing huge problems for some companies. It is rather worrying that:

a) PayPal broke something so fundamental as subscription payments. Don’t they have proper testing before they roll out changes?

b) It still wasn’t fixed 12 days later.

c) PayPal seem completely unresponsive to requests for information from developers when problems occur.

I have also noticed the PayPal sometimes includes the referral data I read from cookies in customer notification emails. There is no reason why customers should see custom data I pass through to PayPal for tracking purposes. I’m not trying to hide the fact I use cookies. But I don’t want to shove it in their face either. Whether they include this custom data in notifications emails seems quite random. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

Reliability is my top requirements for a payment processor. PayPal can’t really afford to drop the ball on something as basic as this with GoogleCheckout and Amazon payments breathing down their necks. If I was running PayPal head would be rolling. I hope they sort all these issues out soon. A bit more transparency wouldn’t hurt either.

Is the Eurovision song contest rigged?

There has been a lot of moaning in the UK press that the Eurovision song contest is rigged. Specifically that countries are voting for each other in geographical blocs, with little regard for the merit of the songs. But are they? It is hard to see any patterns from looking at a table of voting results:

Eurovision 2008 voting

2008 results from Eurovision.tv, click to enlarge.

So I created a simple visualisation of the data[1], similar to one of the approaches I use in my table planner software, PerfectTablePlan. In this visualisation I draw a line from each country to the country that it gave the highest points to. The closer the country is geographically, the thicker and bluer the line.

Eurovision 2008 voting visualisation

Eurovision 2008 voting patterns. Click to enlarge.

Looking at the diagram, there does appear to be bloc voting going on in the Balkans, Scandinavia & the former Soviet Union. But what would the voting look like if there was no bloc voting? To find out I randomly swapped columns in the table. For example votes made by the UK I assigned to Belarus and votes made by San Marino[2] I assigned to the UK. So each finalist now has the same number of incoming votes, but from random countries. Assuming they are voting for the best (or least awful) song, not by geography, the results should look similar. The randomised version looks more, well, random.

randomised Eurovision 2008 voting patterns

Randomised Eurovision 2008 voting patterns. Click to enlarge.

These results are suggestive, but not conclusive. But If I put the last 3 year’s results together with their randomised versions, I think there is little doubt that geography is the key factor in determining Eurovision voting patterns. The actual voting patterns look remarkably similar year-on-year and the difference between the actual and randomised results are quite marked.

Eurovision voting patterns

Eurovision voting patterns, actual and randomised, for 2006, 2007 and 2008. Click to enlarge.

Maybe if the western European countries liked each other a bit more, the UK wouldn’t have come last this year? But I can’t really see Britain, Spain, France and Germany voting for each other any time soon. ;0)

Does it really matter whether Eurovision song contest voting is based on merit? It certainly won’t keep me awake at night. But I think it is a nice illustration of how you can use simple visualisation techniques (even something hacked together in a few hours) to turn raw data into usable information. The human brain has incredibly powerful visual processing hardware. Have you optimised your software to run on this platform?

[1] I wrote some throwaway code to generate these images in C++ and Qt over a few hours on a wet bank holiday Sunday. QA amounted to ‘that looks about right’.

[2] I’ve never heard of it either – but apparently it gets as many votes as the UK.

So what’s your excuse?

Double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius has finally been given the chance to qualify for the Olympics after the the IAAF’s ban on him competing against ‘able bodied’ sprinters was overturned. Oscar’s achievements in battling against his disabilities and a unsympathetic IAAF is an inspiration to everyone struggling to achieve their personal goals.