Kate Moss: From QPR to Virgin Mobile...

Having been accused of being somewhat querulous recently with posts about one and miserable online experiences, I thought I'd pass readers a link to the new Kate Moss ad for Virgin mobile. One of the highest rating areas of this blog is the picture of Kate in a QPR shirt (mucky readers) and so I expect this to be a bit of a festive hit. Entirely safe for viewing at work by the way. The bearded entrepreneur and his team have done it again.

Download the Kate Moss Virgin Mobile ad in full. (Quicktime required)

Tim Clarke, MD of one, resigns

I wanted to open this blog entry with the line “today I got an early Christmas present” but, as I hope you’ll soon discover that isn’t really the feeling I want to capture. I’m actually disappointed. A bit like opening said present and discovering that it’s not quite what you wanted it to be, an Action Man without working limbs for example.

Regular readers of my blog (aside: may have been disappointed recently by the lack of entries) will know of my frustration with one railway. Only last night I threw away all the letters I had stored up following compensation claims for punctuality problems in the last 18 months. I had intended to log these and produce some kind of graph for you all, the true figures of performance shame but instead one did it themselves.

They released figures this week that were awful. Dropping from 88% punctuality (2004) to 81% (2005). The thing is, this represents all journeys on the London-Norwich route, taken over the commuting peak period I bet it’s so much worse. The figures from the rail regulator show that the train companies are still nowhere close to punctuality figures from seven years ago when the average age of rolling stock on the lines was, on average, 10 years older.

In April 2004 Tim Clarke, existing MD of Anglia was unveiled as the new MD of one. He bought with him all the problems of the old network but presented a vision of the new and, to be fair, things did improve a little. Statistically, more trains were provided, more punctuality and reliability. But in the last quarter we have experienced some horrendous episodes and despite peculiar recognition at customer service awards he has stepped down. These awards are the result of innovation in customer service – i.e. their Delay Repay scheme: acknowledging that they get things wrong, not necessarily doing this with compassion, competence or the intention to improve it. This system is flawed, both for the customer and the company:

1. The company have to pay out vouchers and this must inevitably cost them money. If it doesn’t it costs Network rail money who then can’t invest it in improving the service.
2. The customer gets a voucher which, if they are a non-London commuter, is useless unless you store them all up to offset the season ticket each year. By which £50 (last year’s income from claimed compensation) off a £2300 season is just over 2% … this infers that 98% of the service I paid for was acceptable. Simply untrue.

You’ll see from previous letters, most notably this one, that one don’t actually have any innovative ideas about customer service. They’ve developed one as a way to say “we’re doing something” but it’s the whole package that’s in need of innovation. In a way it’s disappointing that an MD has to resign as it’s not useful to have to start again, at least Tim knows the line, knows the organisation and knows what needs to be done it’s just so sad that the whole team don’t seem to have the answers. I’m guessing we’ll see a grand announcement shortly after Christmas as to who’s to take over and loads of talk of new trains, better service etc. etc. But much of this will already have been set-up by Tim Clarke and the momentum will already be there. What will really happen is we’ll have a honeymoon period of good intentions and a desire to improve followed by further stagnation. Until train operators start employing visionary charismatic leaders (like Branson) and use the energy and innovation seen outside the sector, more heads will roll and the trains, increasingly, will not.

Footnote: one recently sponsored an Anglia business award, the award for customer service in fact. I'm not sure whether this demonstrates intent or irony.


Lotus Exige Written Off After Valet Boys Take It For A Spin

Newspapers report today the story of Dan Gould
who took his Exige in to be valeted before sale (cost: £80) only to be told later by the foreman that it had had a bit of an accident.

Sadly this absolutely fantastic piece of engineering was written off by the numpty that was driving it. I suppose Mr. Gould can't be too distraught, the valet company's insurance (Master Valet, Exeter) should cover it - and he was selling it anyway.

Taking a look at the photo it shows just how catastrophic collisions can be for the body work on these composite-clad cars however, the driver's door opens fine and the cockpit is intact. Note also how little damage there is on the Peugeot's near side - a result of the impact absorption properties of the glass-fibre composite body.

:: How the Exige looks when intact
:: The BBC News site for Devon is featuring this story.


Christmas Shopping Online Isn't More Enjoyable Than The High Street, Yet

As it’s Christmas and we’re all spending a large amount of time shopping online you’d hope it would be more pain free than standing prone in Marks and Spencer on a cold Saturday afternoon. (Aside: Why is it that you always dress up for a cold day pounding the High Street but actually spend 90% of your time inside super-heated stores feeling queasy?)

The trouble is, the online experience still, too often, collapses into a farce as soon as you click the ‘checkout’ link/button. Ignoring the usability crimes that permeate the browsing and selecting process, it is the interminable form-filling that I hate. I must have registered now on so many sites. Really I only want to register on sites that I use a lot. Imagine the hassle of having to register to enter a shop on the High Street? “Sorry sir, you’re a new visitor, please take the time to fill out this form and provide us with your email address and password before you come through the door. “

Alongside the sheer time and effort that is involved in doing this, it’s desperately insecure. The human mind being what it is we’re more than likely to use the same email address and password combination all over the web as it’s simply too much hassle to generate new ones each time. Various people have offered solutions to this problem: e.g. have one Excel file that’s password protected and contains a list of all your log-ins which is still more hassle than not having to register … which is my preferred solution.

Why can it not be possible to visit a shop online and buy one item and leave without leaving them all your details. I don’t truly value a personalised portal experience on every site. Granted, on Amazon it’s started to be a powerful tool … but that’s because I’ve invested hours tweaking my recommendations and rating my purchases. It’s unrealistic to expect me to do that on every site.

One thing I can’t make my mind up over is the multi-part form. Do I want to fill out a form that’s all on one page (so I can see all the fields) or do I want to do a step-by-step form where I perceive that I’m going through small chunks of the form (and possibly only being shown the most relevant fields). I’m not sure. It depends on whether there’s enough of a progress indicator on the step form. It might say I’m step three of five for example but it might be that step four is a huge time-consuming chore. That’s why I prefer time-related progress indicators: “you’re two minutes away from checking out” If this is timed on the lowest common denominator then you’re going to exceed expectations – invariably A Good Thing™.

Worst of all however is when a form tells me I’ve done something wrong and then fails to either show me where this error is or identify how I might correct it. PostCodes are a classic example: “PostCode not recognised”? It could be that the PostCode is three steps back in the form requiring me to skip back through the process (hoping that the session has cached all my input) and, even then, I still think I’ve input it correctly. The answer is that the back-end can’t actually recognise the spacing so XX1 1YY should be input as XX11YY. If you want the PostCode in a certain format then say so, otherwise introduce scripting to account for the multiple variations in the way that users input it – the same is true of phone numbers, dates of birth and credit card numbers.

I wonder how much all this would have bugged me were it not for the fact that I’ve been reading these usability books?

I’ll keep a log of my best online e-tailing experiences and post them after Christmas.
In other usability news
Meanwhile Google are being incredibly proactive (and maybe a bit Big Brother) in opening a Google Space usability lab at Heathrow where they can assess a large volume of user experiences. Jesper Rønn-Jensen and Thomas Watson Steen alerted me to this through their Standards & Usability blog
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one anglia continue to disappoint

At 9pm last night I boarded the delayed 8pm from Liverpool Street to Ipswich.

Before we got to Whitham we were delayed further by ongoing problems with the overhead lines at Romford.

The senior conductor offered her apologies.

Then the train in front failed. Then there was a medical emergency on the train, a doctor was requested.

Then the train in front was to be towed. More apologies. Then the train couldn't be moved because the brakes had seized. Then there was congestion.

Eventually we did move, slowly, between stations. We arrived in Ipswich over 2 hours and 20 minutes late (at 11.40pm). My ticket had cost £52. It took nearly 3.5hours to get home.

This isn't all Network Rail's infrastructure, this is unreliable trains too.

The icing on the cake? This morning's 08.09 from Ipswich left at 08.30 ... due to overhead line problems at Romford. It never ends.

See also: Open Letter Complaint & Response Fire On one Railway Fire On one Railway: Their Response Commuting's Better By Bike one Opportunity To Shine Missed Idioms Idiosyncrasies And More Service Failures

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Brad and Elizabeth Email from KPMG

Claire Swire-style email doing the rounds today [explicit content]


It would be difficult for me to be any more miserable right now, I feel like the worst person ever. First, let me start by saying that I am truly truly sorry, and I hate myself for hurting you. Of all the people in the whole entire world, you were honestly the last person that I would ever want to wrong in any way. There is no excuse at all for anything that happened, so I won't even try other than to say all of us had WAY too much to drink, and I did a stupid thing.

I can handle you being pissed at me, I absolutely deserve it, I can even handle the ugly words that were exchanged between us, what I can't handle is thinking that you see me as a different person. It is weird, I feel like I just went through a horrible break up or something.
The world looked funny yesterday, I couldn't crack a smile if you paid me, there are songs I can't listen to, and I just ! feel beyond crushed. I don't know if you meant everything you said to me, and I am hoping that you didn't. I know that I was wrong on many levels, but I am also
hoping that this is something that we can deal with.

I know it sounds totally crazy and stupid, but you have come to play such a significant role in my life, I can't imagine my days without you. It is totally strange and weird to say that, and you could say that my behaviour didn't reflect that, and you would be correct. I hate feeling
like you hate me, and I hate feeling like all of your friends think I am a terrible person, because I am not.

I know there is nothing I can say or do to take back what happened, but I just want you to know that fighting with you was just about the worst thing I could have ever imagined. It was right up there with one of the ugliest nights of my life, and I would give anything in the world to rewind and fix it. I am not sure if you will respond to this, part of me thinks that you won't. If not today, then maybe some other time.

Also, thanks for getting my stuff together, although I think my sunglasses are still at your house, if you could keep your eyes peeled for them that would be great. I can't even focus on work today, I can't eat, I seriously feel like it was an ugly break up and I am hoping against hopes that it was not that and you are not done with me.

Please don't cut me off, I really don't think I can handle that.

I am so sorry.

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for your concern. I'll be sure to file it away under "L" for "Long-winded diatribes from drunken wh*res I couldn't care less about". You did a stupid thing huh? No...doing long division and forgetting to carry the one is "a stupid thing"; Mixing in a red sock with a load of whites is "a stupid thing"; Bl0wing some guy in a bathroom for 45 minutes while I sit at the bar wondering if you're taking so long because you ate too much bran that morning isn't as much
a "Stupid thing" as it is grounds for permanent removal from my social calendar.

To be honest, I'm not sure if it was more amusing that you went and degraded yourself in a public toilet not once but twice in a 2 hour span, or that you seemed to think that by saying "Well, I didn't love him" somehow gave you a clean slate. So forgive me if I couldn't care less if the world "looked funny" to you yesterday. Since your world revolves around blow dryers, golden retrievers, Prada Bags and Jelly Beans, I'm sure it must have been most unsettling to actually have to consider someone else's feelings for 24 hours straight.

The good news for you is that my friends don't think you are a terrible person, they just think you're the average run of the mill c*m-guzzling blonde who commands about as much respect as your average ch!ld p*rn collector. I could be wrong but, it's pretty hard to respect some chick who comes out to spend the night at my place even though she's seeing someone else and winds up tongue-bathing the taint of anyone who decides 30 minutes of droning commentary on Colin Farrell's new haircut is worth putting up with for a hand j0b in the men's room. The good thing about being a guy is that when I eventually bump into the young lad who finger-blasted you on top of a towel dispenser last saturday, we'll have a shot and laugh our heads off about the time it happened. By the way, for the amount of time you claim to spend in spin class you really must be doing something wrong to sport the thunder thighs you do. Watching you parade around my bedroom in a thong was a little like watching sea lions mate. Thought you might like to know.

Talk to you never,

PS. I BCC'd about 100 people on this email.

Brad Mitchens
KPMG Executive
Corporate Finance - Valuations

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'one' Customer Services Response

Well, as promised, I can now post the response from one to my lengthy open letter complaint a few weeks ago [the response was received shortly after my email but I have held back to allow other postings to be made].

Contact reference: 168858

Dear Mr Gibbard,

Thank you for writing to us. I was sorry to read that your journeys with us have not been to the standard you expected.

I am sorry for the delays you suffered last week. We work very hard to make sure that all our trains arrive on time as we know that any disruption to our passengers' journeys is both inconvenient and frustrating. I have checked the logs for your journeys that week, but the reasons for the delays were different on each occasion. [JG: does this matter to me? A delay is a delay but I should hear them out...] Most of the problems were with the rail infrastructure, which is operated by Network Rail [JG: reads "not my problem guv"], although on one occasion an error by one of our drivers was a contributing factor. We do realise the difficulty that delays cause, and are in constant contact with Network Rail to ensure that such problems are kept to a minimum. [JG: what's the incentive for N.R. to ensure it doesn't happen.]

I am sorry that you have found that we have not been keeping you informed about delays to our services. We understand that this is vitally important and will always try our best to give out the most up to date and accurate information available. Unfortunately, during times of disruption, it can be very difficult for our staff to do this as the information they are being given by parties such as Network Rail, is constantly changing.[JG: Not good enough. Explain this to customers at the time, don't wait for complaints. If Network Rail say the problem is x say to passengers that "Network Rail say the problem is x" it's only fair. This still isn't happening though...]

We also appreciate how upsetting and frustrating it can be to be told one piece of information, which then changes within minutes. Therefore, we always try and get the correct information first before announcing this to our customers [JG: Not so. Passengers rarely get any info at all.]. It is unfortunate that this can take some time to be confirmed.

Our information boards run on an automatic system that updates the expected time according to when our trains pass the signal points. Unfortunately this can mean that if a train is stuck at the signals outside the station [JG: sic, this indicates the letter was not proof read before sending...]

We are currently in the process of introducing refurbished rolling stock on our mainline services, which should provide a far more comfortable environment in which to travel than that which is currently provided. All of our Norwich to London carriages are set to be replaced by May. These will have improved heating and air conditioning systems. [JG: UPDATE I have travelled on two of these services. This 'far more comfortable environment' meant re-upholstered seats, floor and wall carpets and a lick of internal paint. That's it. Oh, and the improved heating/air con just means that it works, for the moment]

I do not think we are planning to introduce the kind of facilities that you enjoyed on your GNER service. [JG: Why not? There was mention of in-train WiFi in the service magazine a year or so ago, customers demand more...] There were plans to introduce on train television, but this proposal did not prove popular with our customers. [JG: I never mentioned this. In train TV clearly is a bit daft. In-train audio and broadband has proven to be a success elsewhere.] We have been innovative as a company in other ways however - our 'Delay Repay' scheme for compensating people for delays to their journey is one of the most generous among train operating companies, and our website consultation exercise on the proposed changes for the West Anglia timetable (a first for the region) received warm praise from the Rail Passenger's council. We are currently developing our 'Season Direct' service, which will allow people to pay for their season tickets via Direct Debit at approximately one twelfth of the season ticket price. [JG: better, and service orientated. But the best companies are always innovating not just reflecting on their Greatest Hits!]

I have spoken to our buildings manager, who has informed me that we did not repaint Ipswich station during the summer. [JG: reads "liar". The reverse is true. The outside of the station WAS painted in white and a few other bits in Anglia green.] Unfortunately the display board at Ipswich has not been repaired due to a dispute with our contractors.
This has been on-going for some time, but has been resolved, with the contractors agreeing to repair or replace the board soon. [JG: No, not good enough. The board should have been fixed first and the liability for repair/replacement settled later. The customer should have been the prime concern, not who was to blame.]

The installation of matrix displays at rural stations would require significant investment, as at present many of these stations have no connection to the information systems. If you had any particular stations in mind, I would be happy to look into this further.[JG: Crossed-wires. I meant more screens at Ipswich and Norwich. I maintain this desire as passengers should be able to stand on the platforms and see the screens from almost any point. This would provide a more even distribution of passengers joining the train at various points.]

With regards to the service our staff offer our customers, we are committed to delivering a regular Customer Service Training Programme for all our front line staff. From April all our staff will attend a three day Customer Service Culture course at our new Customer Service Academy located in Stratford. This is a significant investment in this area, and along with better recruitment ideals we hope that our customers will see a better and improving level of customer service across 'one'. [JG: A Good Thing. Will wait and see. Some of the younger new recruits are much better.]

I am sorry that you are dissatisfied with the announcements made by our conductors. We do not have a set 'script' as such for what our conductors should say on their announcements, but allow them to welcome our passengers onto our trains as they see appropriate. Of course, we expect our conductors to offer a warm welcome, and I assure you that our announcements do meet basic health and safety requirement.

Our website currently shows a selection of our most popular fares. We are intending to introduce a more extensive facility on our website in the future, although I do not have a set date for this at present as our I.T. team are also engaged in other projects to help improve the service we offer. [JG: "we'll get round to it. At the moment we're building more online games and marketing gumpf"]

I hope I have managed to answer your points to your satisfaction, but if you would like me to expand on any issue, please let me know, and I would be happy to do so.

Once again, I am sorry that you are dissatisfied with our service, but I hope that you will see an improvement soon. Thank you again for contacting us.

Best wishes,

Customer Relations Advisor

JG: Ok, so xxxx deflated a few of my arguments but I have to say I was a little disappointed that he didn't rise to my tone. More seriously I was genuinely disappointed not to receive a phone call or get any real sense that they worship the customer at one. There's an impression of a persecution complex there. I know that Network Rail are to blame for much of the problems but until one make the customer feel more valued, they will continue to be the public repository for all the commuters' ire. The saga continues...

More usable web pages: Sticky content and customer-centric design

Andrew Henning from redweb sent me this 1837online and, more recently their wonderfully accessible and usable site for UK Clinical Research, you could do a lot worse than give Andrew’s wise words a look.

In the theme of accessibility and usability being mutually exclusive,
Jakob's recent Alertbox is a short bleat about how making things disability-compliant does not mean they're particularly usable. And, by implication, a site that is usable might not be (universally accessible).

Bought these three books recently and am ploughing through them...

:: Emotional Design, Donald Norman
A follow-up of sorts to his seminal
The Psychology of Everyday Things. I saw the review of this on the UX Web Magazine and just knew I had to read it. It made me think which other Usability tomes I've neglected, so I ordered ...

:: Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach To Web Usability 2nd Edition, Steve Krug
Criminally for someone who talks about this stuff I've never owned this book, just referred to it. It's now in my arsenal and revisiting its themes has been like meeting up with an old friend for a tall Americano and a bluberry muffin in Satrbucks. He's just so, right.

:: Defensive Design For The Web, Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried
An absolutely crucial read for me at the moment as I work on (re)developing online forms and the user experience thereof. Should tie-in nicely with the other two.

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Presentation Style: The Art of Simplicity

A colleague passed me a link today to this page on Presentation Zen. I happened across Steve Jobs' presentations when tracking the launch of the new iPods and had adapted his style to some recent PowerPoint™ slides at work. Particularly noteworthy in this article is the reference to the Microsoft™ style of presentation (regarded as Really Bad PowerPoint by Seth Godin). If you take nothing else from this article, take the quote:

"Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means" - Dr. Koichi Kawana

Examples of Steve Jobs' presentations are available for those with broadband and QuickTime™:

:: October 2005 Special Event (iTunes 6 and iPod Video launch)
:: September 2005 Special Event (iPod Nano launch)


Birmingham or Beaver: What is our priority?

Regardless of your opinions on the matter (the matter, that is, of biodiversity and the repopulation of the British countryside with boar, beaver and frogs) a recent article by Jeremy Clarkson concerning the South Cerney reintroduction project is a genuinely entertaining read.
For an alternative viewpoint a South Cerney Beaver Blog is open...


"Ai No Corrida" Video

Bit late in identifying this one, but anyone who was a fan of the Eric Prydz Call on Me video might be interested in one of the dancers' solo projects. Laura More and Scottish dance outfit Uniting Nations have produced a particularly male-orientated video to their song Ai No Corrida.

UPDATE: 28th November - there's now a full length version of the Laura More Ai No Corrida video doing the rounds. It's 50+ Mb though.


Sporty People: Fulfill Those Competitive Urges

Got pointed in the direction of a useful site the other day, it's still in concept form but the questionnaire on the site (where you can win an iPod) hints at some rather intruiging functionality. The basics are thus: Sports people training alone or in non-competitive environments can log their results, times or achievements on the site to compare against others. This could be a mini league of friends, national leagues and so on. As a resource it has huge potential - especially for de-motivated sportsmen like myself who struggles to see the competitive element of going out on a long run on his own on a Sunday.

Of course, the basics will have to be right but this can only be achieved if the sort of people that use it actually go there now and let them know what it should look and feel like.

In other news ... my time at The University of York Boat club may be far behind me but that doesn't stop me keeping in touch. The oldblades site which I neglected got taken over by John Slade and the new clean, lean and fresh site is available. I've updated a whole range of people's profiles but if you knew me from those days or are looking for old rowing mates from York then visit the site.


talar du engelska?

Bought Teach Yourself Swedish last week and have begun the long and arduos road of teaching myself to speak the language. I've long been interested in the language and as winter approached and the prospect of a trip over there in 2006 seemed more likely I thought now's the best time to sit back on the train and get to know the basics. I'm not a natural language person when it comes to anything other than my mother tongue and this is no exception. To put it mildly I'm finding it hard. Updates as and when....

In the meantime, adjö


The Customer Experience on One Railway (an open letter)

Following several earlier posts regarding my daily experiences with the woeful one railway, I decided after a difficult week to give the respondent and her team another chance....
"xxxx, you may know that we’ve corresponded in the past (ref: 143988) and, despite my better judgement, I have decided to give you all another chance to redeem yourselves with some superb customer service. You see I’m not really a complete novice when it comes to this sort of stuff. At work I live and breathe customer satisfaction, I’ve even been on the phones myself dealing direct with customers, that’s what makes my experiences with one all the more depressing – I know that it shouldn’t be that difficult to get it right.

I recently read a piece by Richard Branson, you know xxxxx, the one with the beard that’s got all those planes and trains? He said how proud he was that they’ve started to embed a culture of customer service amongst their staff, many of whom were embittered by years of pre-privatisation neglect. I genuinely hope that one are working this hard – from the very top of your organisation – to encourage such a helpful workforce. You know, I once heard a Chinese proverb which said “The man without a smile should never open a shop”, well, I hope you’re smiling.

Now, to the crux of the matter, every single day this week the 08:09 from Ipswich to Norwich has left Ipswich late. It does happen, I know, despite everyone’s best efforts, but every day this week? What makes is worse are two things (I’ll be nice and put them in bullet points so you can highlight them when you send the hard copy to your bosses)

:: The ‘due’ time on the departure boards kept increasing by a minute just as it ticked toward the latest time, so the train was due at 08:15, it got to 08:15 and suddenly it was due at 16, 17, 18 and so on.
:: There were never any announcements as to why each delay had occurred, what the estimates were for it to arrive, or what one were doing to help. Nothing, silence, just the received-pronunciation of your automated announcements.

What exactly do one want to sell me as a commuter? If your answer is ‘train travel’ or ‘a ticket from Ipswich to Norwich’ you’re wrong. What one should be offering is a journey experience. A visionary journey where the customer (passenger) is central to the experience. I want to wait for a punctual train at a clean, dry and comfortable station. I want to board a modern train, one that’s safe, reliable, fast, quiet, clean and superbly comfortable. I want every passenger to be paying a fare towards this service but a fare that makes sense. I want to be able to use a train toilet, read a newspaper, check my emails and get a coffee and croissant in the mornings. I want the conductor to be friendly, approachable, helpful and courteous. Is this what’s currently happening on one or is the reality more like this: I arrive at a cold, filthy run-down station to wait for a train that is always late but no-one ever tells me why. I sit down on a broken seat in old Virgin rolling stock amongst a pile of discarded papers and coffee cups. My ticket is glanced at by a bored bloke in his 40s but he ignores the kids opposite me with their feet on the seats who’ve not bought a ticket between them. We stop outside Diss for ten minutes where the heating breaks and no announcement is made, I await a refreshment trolley but one never comes. We move off and the knackered ex-Virgin carriages judder in to Norwich thirty minutes late.

These are not unreasonable observations; contrast the one London – Norwich service with:

:: On
GNER a month ago I travelled to York and surfed the web all the way there on my laptop through their onboard wireless service.
:: On
Virgin a few months ago I travelled to Manchester in blissful air-conditioned comfort listening to in-train entertainment and working on my laptop from the at-seat power point.
:: Grand Central Trains will not charge you if you have to stand.

So, some more questions for you and your colleagues to answer:

1. When will one provide new rolling stock OR rolling stock refurbished to a standard such as that seen on GNER’s flagship ‘
Mallard’ trains
2. What innovative changes to the service are one implementing to make their passenger experience exceptional, the sort of thing that makes people gasp (eg. wireless broadband)?
3. Why did one repaint Ipswich station in old Anglia colours during the summer?
4. Why does each ‘senior conductor’ provide different announcements when the train sets-off? Surely these should be consistent and meet basic Health And Safety requirements?
5. Why can you not find out the cost of an Ipswich – Norwich annual season ticket on the website (it only shows London season ticket prices) How difficult would it be to add an Annual Season Ticket check form where you input ‘from’ and ‘to’ click submit and it gives you a price?
6. Why do one not ALWAYS tell passengers why the delay has occurred and what they’re doing to resolve it?
7. Why are the ‘due’ indicators on the departure boards so inaccurate?
8. Why has the massive departure/arrivals board in Ipswich station foyer been broken for nearly a year? Is it THAT difficult to fix? (your website talks of investment in new passenger information systems… where?)
9. Why do one not use more (modern) matrix display screens along the platforms at their ‘rural’ stations?

xxxx, I don’t suppose you have all the answers, I don’t have the answers as to why our service is bad sometimes but I do know that we have a culture here of challenging this sort of rubbish. Knock on doors, speak to managers, pass this email round and get people to wake up to the fact that one are so far off the pace when it comes to customer service, innovation, progress and, quite frankly, the basics of providing a safe, efficient, reliable and comfortable service? Why not book a meeting with xxxx xxxxxx? Show him this letter, get him to call me. Are one serious about the customer experience?

The trouble is I have to use this service daily and in that respect it’s an easy target. You have to please me almost every day or I get upset. I get so upset I feel the need to complain only when I’ve endured a level of service that is woeful in the extreme, but that’s starting to be a daily occurrence.


Continental Fighting Lager™

Saw this expression used on Danny Wallace's Citizens Required 'census' for the nation of 'Lovely', have to say it perfectly represents a certain type of premium lager, ie. Stella Artois, 1664, Carlsberg Export, Grolsch etc. notorious for its high alcohol content, which has been linked to binge drinking. Probably been in use on the streets for some time but I wouldn't know.


A Grand Central Vision For Train Journeys

For the umpteenth time this week the 08:09 was delayed from Ipswich. One seem to make use of some kind of rolling update on their live departure boards. The ‘due’ time increases by one minute every time it gets to within 30 seconds of the train supposedly arriving. Intensely frustrating and, once again, there’s no mention over the PA system as to why the delay has occurred or what their doing about resolving it. I wish that train operators would introduce a bit more transparency and honesty into their customer experience.

One company [excuse the pun] that is doing something about the customer experience (or at least says it will) is newboy
Grand Central Trains. I have to say that I was quite fond of GNER through many experiences travelling to-from my alma mater but I would agree that competition on this line would be a good thing. Top of their customer-centric agenda (read: press release) has been the “Can’t Find A Seat? Have A Refund” message and, slightly lower on the agenda, a simplification of fares ensuring more customers pay lower fares.

I get the feeling that as the network infrastructure improves (it is isn’t it?) then rail companies are going to have to stop complaining about delays and service issues being out of their control and begin to provide the sort of experience that passengers have dreamed about for years. When Harley Davidson execs summarise “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.” I have to wonder what ‘one’ and other customer-service-blind operators are really selling – are they selling an experience of effortless, productive and comfortable travel between clean, efficient and breath-taking stations? No, and this is the vision that they must strive to attain else we continue to endure something quite, quite different.

Avian Flu: Don't Panic Mr. Peters...

Somewhat irritatingly I’ve got myself into reading TomPeters.com again … he’s in Asia (or at least has been) at the moment and he’s got himself all worked up over bird flu. I must admit to, rather like the errant farmyard cockrel, sitting on the fence with this. Whilst I can see it makes sense to forward plan and perhaps move a few investments out of Asian markets in advance of any potential pandemic this does rather smack of American protectionism and the thought that anything that scaremongers amongst the fastest growing economies in the world will be good for the US market. At the moment it’s an Asian-European problem and I would imagine there are plenty of analysts on Wall Street who like it that way.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the more scientific monitoring of the spread of the virus, the BBC’s graphics department have produced a
blisteringly effective interactive map and timeline.


The Million Dollar Homepage

Every so often someone comes up with an idea so simple and so effective it causes you to sit back and applaud. On a big scale we’re talking about iPods, Innocent Smoothies, the Lotus Elise, Google …

Today I was told about one on a micro scale, a get rich quick scheme that is so much more innovative than the
pan-handle sites of a few years ago. The Million Dollar Homepage is a simple business model: get businesses to pay to advertise on space you own and will be viewed by many people. It was marketed in the best word-of-mouth style by a simple email campaign. In 3 days this guy had generated $400 (£223.80) in revenue. Frankly it’s money for old rope, but he saw the opportunity and did it. Tellingly there are close to 400 copycat sites itself an indication of the less inventive profiteering from others’ ideas. I only hope that these sites don’t take ‘trade’ from the original idea which, if it grows at current rates, should exceed the million dollar (£559,515.68) target by Boxing Day.

All those dead hours I spend dreaming of the Next Big Thing on the commute to Ipswich and this one had never occurred to me … nuts.

Kate Moss signs for QPR

UPDATED 22nd December with a link to Kate Moss in the Virgin Mobile Ad.
UPDATED 7th November with link to picture of Kate Moss in a QPR shirt

As an ill-disguised QPR fan (though they’ve been absent on this blog so far) I’ve had a good week. Thumping the Budgies at home was a sweet victory, taken in tandem with our mighty identical victory last season at Loftus Road against (then top-of-the-league) Ipswich means I’ve had plenty to crow about to the East Anglian masses at work for 12 months. I knew it would be an omen when I sat opposite Delia on the 17.30 to Ipswich last week.

Then along comes the news that Babyshambles frontman and outed coke-addict Pete
Doherty has written a tune about his beloved Rangers. I knew he was a long term fan and bordering obsessive about the club. Though I despise the chap and his nauseating music I have to say I am oddly tempted to gawp at the apparent picture of Kate Moss in a QPR shirt that adorns the sleeve notes of his latest release, Down in Albion. There’s something oddly appealing to the heterosexual male about a girl in a footy shirt, and for all her powder-snorting nonsense one can’t deny that Kate Moss makes good eye candy.

As for the ‘lyrics’ to Doherty’s QPR-orientated ode, the
Guardian reproduces them thus:

I'll be, I'll be there/And just before I hit the bar/With the ghost of Rodney Marsh in his pre-smug pundit days/ Before he sold Rangers down the Swanee/With Gerry Francis's offshore money/ It's a toss-up between Mick Jones/And a consortium from the Middle Eastern equivalent of Barrett Homes /I'll be, I'll be there/With blue and white ticker tape in my hair/Up the Rs/Up the Rs/Up the Rs/What a life on Mars.

The bitter sweet truth of the matter is that this song is unlikely to be used by the club or receive anything but a fans-only airing unless Rangers win the FA Cup. Which, frankly, is as unlikely as Doherty & Moss staying ‘clean’.

The BBC have a small summary article but have added some
cracking photos of the dysfunctional pair (Kate looking glam, Pete looking high).

This week Rangers face Derby.


Tom Peters, Bob Brown and Happy Eater

  • Took a look at a Tom Peters’ (Tom’s wiki biography | Tom’s weblog) book the other day. I nearly wept at how ‘groovy’ it was trying to be. The literary equivalent of a post-menopausal woman in white linen trousers and caked in St. Tropez. It’s impossible to read … you just observe the pages falling open in front of you. The actual content could have been presented more effectively if it had been painted in ink on glass underwater by a blind dog with a mop. If you want to try it for yourself, get RE-Imagine! from Amazon

Usability Issues With Blogging

Jakob finally gets round to writing a piece about blogs so I thought I’d better get round to blogging about it. I’m surprised it’s taken him this long frankly, perhaps he just thought that he’d covered most of it all before with his lists of things you shouldn’t do? So, to take arms against his sea of issues:

No Author Biogs
JN asserts that to post anonymously (or at least without a full biographical reference) is to erode the credibility of your comments and that users have a natural urge to know more about the writer. I’m not sure this is the case. I can think of several popular blogs that have no explicit author biography and are none the poorer for it. Do we really demand this sort of content? Is a contact email not sufficient if your inquisitive mind is not sated? JN assumes I suppose that everyone’s blogging about subjects they really ought to be qualified in. Along the same lines is ….

No Author Photo
Has he really thought this through? Does it really matter to the user if their readers can’t see who they are? Do we care, as consumers of literature, that we don’t really know what Shakespeare looked like or that our latest tome from Amazon didn’t have a mugshot of the author? Just because JN’s gurning mug is plastered in the NNg site in high-res (and interestingly only vaguely on his blog-like useit site) doesn’t mean I remember it more than anonymous blogs with a strong visual identity. In essence, I remember the look of a page/site, not the author’s face – a person I am highly unlikely to meet. Personally, keeping a photo off my blog has meant that I’m unlikely to see my face utilised for ‘inappropriate purposes’ by errant friends, colleagues associates and net weirdos.

Nondescript posting Titles
Is the joy of writing headline copy not the skill involved in capturing the essence of the story but in an intriguing manner. It might not always be obvious what the content will be but I would agree that it should tempt the reader to explore further. When seen a purely a link (ie. When the post has moved off the front page) it should remain as engaging and tempting as it did as a headline. In that sense, headline writing is indeed “the most important writing you do.”

Links Don’t Say Where They Go
JN’s missed a trick here. He could have praised the blog community for reviving the lost art of contextual linking. I see more contextual and descriptive hyperlinks amongst blogs than I do almost anywhere else. Bloggers, in their desperate hunt for more readers, have taken on board the benefits of using the sort of links that search engines love. Of course, there are still some of us that occasionally slip in the odd ‘click here’ or ‘more’, we’re human after all and sometimes, in the spirit of quick postings, it’s just not worth my while re-phrasing a paragraph to make a link descriptive.

Classic Hits Are Buried
Here JN is absolutely spot on. I for one know which posts are popular but I also know that they’re popular because people find them through Google and I don’t actually make reference to them that often in other postings. This is principally because I thought it bored people, regular readers, to keep hearing about the same stuff. I will, however, reference the most popular posts in a sticky link in the right menu as it can’t hurt and might actually make new visitors instantly discover worthwhile wheat amongst my blogging chaff.

Calendrical Navigation Is Rubbish
I would have to agree here too. I so often come across blogs when googling for subjects only to click on them and find the relevant post missing. A search using the native tool is regularly ineffectual and you have no idea where to start clicking through dates to find stuff. This blog is constrained by the fact that it’s a generic blogger-powered one and therefore can’t do categories. Believe me, if I had the technical nouse I would have added a better archival system and navigation months ago. I blame Blogger. (BTW: Some other people have discussed calendrical blog archiving)

Irregular Publishing Frequency
This is like people telling Wayne Rooney to calm down. It’s simply the nature of blogging that it will be infrequent. In its purest form blogging represents the erratic ramblings of web-connected individuals, capturing thoughts, moments and experiences online. In the same way that it’s unrealistic to expect them to have biographies and high-res press photos, it’s unrealistic to expect them to stick to defined publishing schedules (a la Alertbox). It’s enjoyable, in a frustrating way, to await the arrival of a new posting from a blogger you’re interested in. I would not want to dictate to people when that should be posting. The benefits of RSS feed readers is that they notify you when posts are updated and this usually is a damn site quicker than traditional web pages.

With this in mind, to tell people not to post if they having nothing to say is for others’ to make judgement on the worthiness of the articles and to my mind that’s a bit wrong. A blog will, inevitably, contain a bit of rubbish every now and then. In many ways it makes the better (more worthy) content stand out more.

Mixing Topics
A subject close to my heart. I mix content all the time. Some customer service, some user-centric web development, cars, holidays, one anglia, Taco Bell, politics, economics etc. etc. As long as there’s an even thread in the blog – in my case customer/user-centred thinking – then it’s ok in my book. People like a bit of irreverence. Granted, if you set a site up like useit then it’s going to seem odd if Jakob starts talking about his dog, his problems with public transport or the economic policy of China but in most public blogs the joy is figuring the connections between the apparently disconnected. Finding out a little about the character behind the writing – without being spoon-fed such information in the biography (vide supra)

Forgetting That You Write For Your Future Boss
Ok, so the web is persistent. I find stuff on there all the time that should have expired a long time ago. I find some stuff on my blog which I’m a bit ashamed about (see Katrina ramblings) but it’s going to stay. I’d not be stupid enough to expose myself to legal action or severe controversy as I know my current boss reads it. Bear that in mind and keep some perspective (bosses are human too) and I can write to my heart’s content. I am naturally cautious about appearing ‘expert’ – especially on topics I’ve only ever really dealt with academically – but people are still visiting you site for analysis, though and consideration. If you shy away from forming opinions then you really are saying nothing at all. As a future boss I’d find that a little sad and vacuous.

Having A Domain Owned By a Weblog Service
… i.e. blogger. Well, apart from expense, blogger got me online in minutes and has supported pretty much all of what I wanted to do – except category archiving. We can’t all afford servers, hosting or spend the time setting up MovableType, PHP, MySQL etc. etc. As far as I can tell, blogger keeps advertising away and has ensured that I’m instantly part of a major blogging community – all for nothing. I’d love to move to my own server and I accept JN’s argument that the longer I leave it the harder it will be so if he wants to sponsor my move to a standalone site could he let me know?

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2 Fascists: Saddam Hussein and a non-compliant vending machine

Two things today, firstly something political: A great piece by John Simpson about the trial of Saddam Hussein where he muses over SH’s potential to become a martyr, the evidence the prosecution may present and some of SH’s possible lines of defence.

Secondly, a wry observation on the very essence of HCI. I tried to get my usual vending machine coffee today (two 58s with the cup dispensing overridden to dispense into a mug) but the machine displayed: “Sorry No Cups”. I thought this wouldn’t matter, I’ve got my own mug, It’ll still dispense my usual cup-free option … not so. No cups mean no fluid whatsoever. It really doesn’t want to play if there are no cups. Ridiculous. A system blockage preventing a very plausible human interaction but one that vividly illustrates a neglect of user-centred design.


UCD vs. SEO - responses

Following my blog posting (and email to uk-usability) regarding search engine optimisation (SEO) and user-centric design I have had some thoughtful emails and just wanted to take the opportunity to respond to a selection of the issues raised.

‘Looking for’ vs. ‘expecting to find’
There is an argument that these are one and the same, that people search for what they want to find on the page, but is this always the case. Anecdotally I know I often search for things in Google when I don’t really know what I’m searching for … today, for example I searched for “networked external storage” but when the results came up and I clicked on one I realised I should have been looking for “ethernet ide drives”. Alastair Campbell of
nomensa also mentioned this frustration when searching in an area who’s terminology is unfamiliar. Site developers thus need to consider not just what their page contains but the quite different ways in which people may look for that content.

A similar frustration was cited by Lola (from Agency.com) – the effect of being dumped on a landing page rather than directly at the point where the searched-for content resides: “if I search for something the last place I’d want to land on is the home page or some other page where I have to navigate and think a bi more to find the info I want” … and earlier “when a user comes to your site intent on finding a keyword she has in mind, you’ll be meeting her needs more readily if her keyword is easy to spot”. I have found the Google bar ‘highlight keywords’ feature invaluable in this instance.

The Team Issue
My original post was concerned with whether putting the SEO team and content development teams together was counterproductive. Ashley, CEO of
e-consultancy asserts that we need to “achieve the optimal balance of what is right for the user AND the search engine” and in this regard “usability people need to understand SEO better and SEO people need to understand UCD better” which is a pretty decent summary and points at a collaborative blend of skills.

Ashley also exposed my naivety in terms of the way that spiders actually work (and thus indicated my need to work closer with spider-savvy SEO colleagues) by informing me that they actually “try to be as human-like as possible”.

Other SEO and usability mutual benefits can be seen by taking a look at “
What’s good for the search engines AND good for the user?” and the more recent (but broader in scope) “From paper to page – what’s the ideal web design process?”. Both of these articles were produced by Ashley.

Many thanks for everyone’s responses to the question.

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iPod video

The rumours were right, an iPod video, the long-awaited enhancement to the 'daddy' iPod (i.e. not the Nano which replaced the mini iPod ... got that? right :) ) In the UK we'll pay £219 for the 30GB version (black or white) and £299 for the 60GB version (again, black or white). These prices are direct from Apple's UK store iTunes 6 is to be released though I suspect this will benefit US consumers primarily with its movie and TV download capability. There's a new iMac too, you might as well read about that on the official site. See my earlier posting for other sites with full details of the announcements today.

I'm not sure where Apple go from here. The iPod is about as functional as it could be now. Only revisions that keep it in the portable media device and not a mini personal computer are reductions in size and increases in capacity - specifically in solid-state memory. Even so, the 15,000 song capacity that the 60GB version now achieves represents most people's entire music library so capacity has an effective consumer limit if not a physical one.

I suppose the innovations now start with the Intel-chipped Macs but as rival manufacturers charge to introduce their own portable video media players Apple will have to be careful to continue with appropriate bold innovations in their flagship device in order to avoid dropping the ball that has so far seen them achieve their most impressive financial results in the company's history.

Search Engine Optimisation: Increased Usability?

A simple question, does search engine optimisation (SEO) improve usability? [a later post with answers is now available]

The reason I ask is that I’ve just been hearing some arguments for restructuring a team to include the SEO guys in the initial content authoring stage to clear the blockage that occurs when content is written and then sent to SEO for amendment. My fear is that if this is taken too literally, that copy on pages resembles the most appropriate for SEO but doesn’t actually work as effectively for the user. Effectively the pages become a long list of keywords and we return, in part, to the days where everyone buried ‘Britney Spears’ in the footer of their pages to score more hits.

In Trenton Moss’ article he asserts that “write your site’s content using the keywords for which users search and you’ll literally be speaking the same language as your visitors”. Well, technically yes you will but most people’s search terms do not reflect good copy. It should be the case, should it not, that search engines reflect the content of the pages they index, not the other way round? Writing page content that engages the user and speaks their language should not be borne out of a need to fit within Google’s requirements but rather a need to fit the users’ requirements.

I accept that other elements of his article ring true, page sizes, CSS in place of tables, descriptive links (a real passion of mine and something which blogging and hypertext rich experiences such as Wikipedia has bought back to life).

However, his last point, ‘Provide Quality Content’ is exactly why I would not like to see the team structured around SEOs. Again we need not to satisfy the SEO drum-beaters but to satisfy the users. To my mind this can only be done by experienced copywriters and people with a genuine nose for what visitors want from a site, people who tested, questioned and researched the user community. So, by all means keep an SEO check at the end of the process but don’t consider it the foundation on which to build a page, right?

[this item has been shared with mailing list uk-usability]

iPod Video Launched today?

Very excited today. More than I should be. A friend alerted me to Mac Rumors (sic) which I have browsed in the past but since the Nano had just been released I'd assumed Apple had played its cards for Q4 2005. Then this rumour appears about "One more thing..." and the visual effect of movie theatre curtains suggests a iPod video with associated iVideo database to download films, TV shows etc. Of course, this is all speculation but this blog reports a significant video blog site has been asked to be part of the presentation.
It all takes place at 10am EST (18:00hrs BST) in San Jose and I for one will be scouring the net this evening to obtain news.
Having just announced their best year ever, Apple are in the ascendant and whilst many would want the delivery of new Power PC versions of the G5 and PowerBook before the switch to Intel chips, I believe that the best people to steer Apple to even greater heights are already in Apple HQ (ASIDE: interesting articles about MSN removing the Apple building at Cupertino from their maps and another one refuting that suggestion)

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Update: This blog will probably have the news ahead of me... Nick Starr seems to be covering the rumors comprehensively


Driving in Greece

I am aware of course that this blog is turning into something quite different from the intended eloquent and considered analysis of web usability but I do have some hope that (due to forthcoming changes in my career) there may be scope to return to these subjects later. In the meantime I find it enjoyable to sit and write about subjects which continue to capture my imagination. And what better place to start than with Greek driving?

Of course this is borne out of my recent driving experience on Samos but a timely article in the Saturday Telegraph has put it firmly on my blog agenda. I feel I should declare an interest, my long-suffering fiancée is half Greek and thus blessed with the temperament of the warm bloodied Mediterranean but, being a British learner driver, she is likewise blessed with a healthy terror of the British driving experience. As a passenger in our rented (and dented) saloon Megane, she found herself looking not so much at the mountain scenery as crossing herself and squirming as we forcibly took another switchback hairpin on the wrong side of the road.

You see the problems are two, three, maybe even fourfold. The fabric of the roads is dire, the presence of road signs and signals erratic, drivers’ obedience to them non-existent and finally, the drivers are under-skilled and fearless. Of course, this is not to imply that us phlegmatic Brits are the pariahs of cautious driving or indeed that our road etiquette is exemplary, far from it, merely that judged by Greek standards one has more of a chance over here than we do over there.

In anticipation of the poor state of the islands roads, I requested Europcar provide us with their smallest runabout, the intention being that this would provide the best visibility and manoeuvrability on mountain switchbacks and through town. When on holiday I’m never really in a rush so a 1 litre engine is fine, if it takes all day to climb up the mountain, so be it. I’d rather have that than be in a 2 litre wide-bodied saloon (sedan) when a coach comes round a blind bend. When I ended up with the free upgrade to the Megane I was miffed rather than delighted.

What amazes me most about driving in Greece is the propensity to overtake where there is no conceivable benefit in terms of time and where the current conditions (blind bend, up hill, driving rain, oncoming traffic etc.) would suggest the only possible outcome is to end up as another shrine and cross on the side of the road. These little shrines are abundant on the roadside, a regular reminder of those that didn’t fare well on the Hellenic highways.

Author of the article Essex University professor Anthony King talks of the white lines painted ostensibly at the edge of the road. In Samos even these are a rare sight. After a ferocious downpour we ventured into the island up the principle roads from Ireon to Mitilini. It was littered with boulders and the previously indistinct tarmac edge had all but disappeared under a sea of red earth and rocks. We did see earth movers scraping some of it back to the edge but you just knew that this was a token gesture and after a few hours the job would be considered complete.

We had been out during this storm, visiting the ancient temple of Hera just outside Ireon and on the desperate limp back to Pythagorio in the downpour I was lit up like a Christmas tree with dipped headlights and fog lamps. In front was a rusty pick-up, in the middle of the road (avoiding puddles) with no lights. Despite being no more than 20 metres in front I was barely able to see him as he swerved right to avoid oncoming traffic and veered left to return to the centre again. He’d have been safer if he’d have driven blindfolded I’m sure. People talk of European standardisation and harmonisation yet in Denmark and Sweden cars have permanent sidelights on by law and in Greece no-one will turn their lights on unless the sun has set?

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. In the land where one can (as we did) see a standard Daewoo Lacetti cruising the strip with vinyl lettering all over the side and Sakis Rouvas blaring from the stereo, many of us Brits are clearly terrified of driving. 50% of Britons who have driven in Greece describe the standard of driving as poor or very poor. Interestingly, the problem is not one of speed. The Greeks, on the whole, drive relatively slowly - the recklessness comes from people overtaking between 40 and 60 mph to gain one car length. Given that most island drivers are driving heavy old cars with engines under 2 litres on roads like the surface of the moon, this is unsurprising.

Interestingly the YouGov poll, to which the Telegraph article refers, omits Portugal, India, Morocco, Egypt and others meaning that the Greeks may yet have to settle for a (posthumous) bronze in the Olympic sport of dangerous driving.

For all the criticism, here is some practical advice for driving in the Hellenes.


Back from Samos

Finally got round to reading Mitch Albom’s ‘Five People You Meet in Heaven’ , a recommendation by one of my directors at work and it proved to be an eminently digestible and, ahem, spiritual book. I have read reviews of it which describe it as slushy Hallmarkesque sentimental nonsense and I would agree that it walks a very fine line between schmaltz and thoughtful prose. The premise is that, upon our death we meet five people on a journey to heaven that make sense of our previously physical life. (I can hear people beginning to make moves to navigate off this blog already.) If you read it expecting it to be crap sentimental rubbish you might find yourself surprised, if you’re expecting an inspirational cerebral analysis of theological and spiritual exploration you’ll be disappointed. It was perfect for a sunny couple of days poolside and I found myself thinking about its themes for days afterwards (and will continue to). I am resolved to read Mitch’s first book ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ in an equally relaxed frame of mind. Please do give it a few moments of your reading life.

Aside from that I tried to re-read ‘The Moral Animal’ but gave up (I didn’t want to think too much in between Fanta Lemon and UV-roasting my dermis), but did tuck into Steven Johnsons ‘Everything Bad is Good for You’ and finish the last chapter of ‘The Essential Difference’ which I had somehow neglected. As far as I’ve got with Steven Johnsons’ book I’m quite impressed. It’s a little weak on the empirical psychology (and I doubt this improves in later chapters) but provides a compelling alternative to the negative column inches that so-called ‘dumbing down’ occupies in the popular press.

I missed two things whilst abroad: Earl Grey and Lost. I gained a peculiar interest in beach volleyball, regained my enjoyment of gym workouts and developed a huge chip on my shoulder about being unable to speak much more than a few words in Spanish, Greek, German, French and Italian especially when our Italian animation chums Alberto and Fabio seemed to speak five languages to conversational level. On the plus side, I only came back to 55 emails at work and 70 at home.

Now, some quick questions: Why don’t the Greeks seem to finish buildings? Everywhere you look there are empty concrete shells or houses with reinforcement rods protruding from the upper floors [answer: see below]. What are the advertising criteria for BBC World? It seems to be one of three things: airlines, national tourist boards or energy companies. Finally, why should one have to pay to use a safety deposit box for two weeks? What cost does a hotel incur for the use of such a box on a daily basis? Surely a deposit for the key is enough?

The sum total of my greek vocab: kalimera (good morning), - spera (afternoon) and nihxta (night), parakolo (please), efharisto (thanks), the numbers 1-10, endaxi (ok), neh (yes), oghi (no), signomi (sorry, excuse me), nero (water), malaka (wanker etc.), spasta mutra (I’m not really sure… but I think it’s something like ‘shut up’).

Why the Greeks don’t finish buildings:
The Greeks often build what they need for the moment and leave the rest of the building unfinished for completion some time in the future. Breaks in the building schedule may therefore be either scheduled, bureaucratic or financial – possibly all three! Greeks are constantly building over long-terms: a significant reason for this is that parents build houses for each daughter, (sons are intended to marry a girl who’s got a house from her parents having had one built or passed to them through inheritance). There is a bit of a myth about taxes only being levied when the roof is added hence the proliferation of iron rods exposed from the tops of buildings ostensibly ‘unfinished’ but this is simply not true.


John Is On Holiday

I know it's been a while but I'm on holiday now. I have departed to the shores of the (as yet) unspoilt island of Samos in Greece.

Various jealousy-inducing links:
The hotel apparently has an 'internet corner' so I might be able to submit the odd blog entry and post some pictures to Flickr. In any event, I look forward to blogging when I get back. Cheerio,


PS. If anyone wants to send me an iPod nano to celebrate my birthday (which was on the 10th September) then contact me through my website.

PPS. If you need something to stave off the boredom in the meantime, check out Steve Job's Special Event webcast ... some really entertaining stuff.