Now where did I put that username?

Today I was told I couldn’t go inside the building society without a password. The guy on the door could remind me of my password but only if I could remember the name of my first pet. And my first girlfriend. And my favourite film. Which I couldn’t of course. So I gave up and went next door to the bookshop. But security wouldn’t let me in there without a recognised username. Apparently I would have chosen one three years ago when I first went to that shop. No, it’s not that one. Nor that one. No sorry, that’s three attempts and you’re now banned from this shop.

It wouldn’t happen on the High Street. So why has it become so hard to do my shopping/banking online? Of course I should be able to remember my username. But each site needs ever more complex combinations of numbers, letters and signs. So every shopping trip becomes more and more complex. Which e-mail address had I used to sign up? I don’t know, it was three years ago.

The building society has just sent me a ‘grid card’ – a physical piece of card with a jumble of letters from which I am required to produce on-demand the letters on two co-ordinates (you’re confused? think how I feel). So I have to carry around this card in my wallet – hardly The Matrix is it? And of course I still need a username, and another independent security question. Which could be the pet. Or the girlfriend. Is that the first girl I kissed? Or the one when things started to get more serious? Does unrequited love count?

Somewhere between automated service and transaction security, the world of e-commerce, e-banking and other online services forgot that I’m just a guy trying to buy some stuff, pay some money and then get on with my life. It used to be that doing everything online was so much easier than going onto the High Street. Now I am starting to think it might be easier to put on my coat and pop into the city centre instead.

Of course I don’t want to do that. I want to stay indoors, checking out every possible model available and not listening to a shop assistant claim vaguely that my size might be in next Tuesday’s delivery. Of course I could just buy everything from Amazon, but I still need to transfer money to the building society. And to do that I need to remember my password … or of course the name of my first pet. Does the stick insect count (“Sticky” I think)? Did I use the name of the dog that belonged to the whole family, or the guinea pig that was my very own?

Make our cities fit for cycling

The Times Cities fit for cycling
Today the House of Commons will debate the vital issue of cycle safety for the first time since 1996. The debate comes after pressure from The Times’ national campaign to make our cities fit for cycling, supported by Sustrans and other cycling lobby groups. As a regular cycle commuter over the past five years, it’s a subject close to my heart but one that I passionately feel is in Britain’s interests on so many fronts – safety; health of the nation; traffic pollution; congestion on the roads and on public transport; sustainability of cities; participation in sport.

The Times initiated the campaign only after one of their staff was nearly killed in an accident. In November Times journalist Mary Bowers was just yards from arriving at work on her bike when she was hit by a lorry. Mary, 27, is still not conscious and is making a slow recovery in hospital. More than 27,000 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on British streets in the past 10 years and the number seriously injured in 2011 was the highest this century.

On average, 66 miles were travelled using a bike by every male in the UK in 2010, with a much lower figure of just 19 miles for females. A total of three billion vehicle miles were made by bike during 2010, which is one per cent of the total journeys made by all vehicles. In 1950, 12.4 billion vehicle miles were travelled by bike.

The urgency of the debate on mutual respect among road users was highlighted last week when Bristol bus driver Gavin Hill was jailed for 17 months for intentionally running down cyclist Phillip Mead in April 2011. The incident was caught on CCTV (below). Mead suffered a broken leg as a result of the incident.


The Early Day motion for today’s debate states:

That this House believes that cycling is an extremely efficient form of transport which is good for health and the environment; supports successive governments’ commitment to encourage the use of bikes and reduce the number of cyclist-related accidents; notes with concern that the number of cyclists killed on Britain’s roads rose by 7 per cent. between 2009 and 2010; further notes that a disproportionate number of cycling accidents involve vans and lorries; supports The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling campaign; and calls on the Government to take further action to improve cycling infrastructure and reduce the number of casualties on roads.

Only 67 MPs have current signed up to attend today’s debate (click here to see if yours is planning to do so). Those 67 are comprised of 35 Labour, 18 Liberal Democrat, 8 Conservative and 6 others. This from a country where our Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are both high-profile cyclists. And surely cycling shouldn’t be a party political issue.

There are only winners in making Britain safer for cyclists – what’s being proposed involves spending no new money, merely focusing a small proportion (2% of the Highways Agency spend) of current budgets on measures that will make Britain a better place for those on two wheels. Which will of course in turn make Britain a better place even for those who don’t want to enjoy the freedom of cycle commuting.

Top ten office products facing extinction

If you’re in the office, take a good look around you, because today’s familiar sights won’t be there much longer. USB sticks, blank CDs and scanners will soon be as rare as the office notice board, filing cabinets and paper in-trays. Research from office supplies firm Pixmania Pro caught my eye today listing, in order of extinction, the top ten regular sights in the office that will soon be gone for ever. And there are more than a few of the things currently cluttering up your desk in the list:

1.    Desk phones

2.    USB sticks

3.    Blank CDs

4.    Scanners

5.    Calculators

6.    Filing cabinets

7.    Paper in-trays

8.    The office notice board

9.    Post-It notes

10.    Water coolers

That the desk phone is on the way out, usurped by the all-dominating mobile, is less surprising than the end of the USB stick after such a short reign (as more and more businesses turn to cloud-based services). But I’m keenest to see the end of the office water-cooler – replaced, and not a moment too soon, by a simple filter on the kitchen tap. So, the end of the water cooler moment and the start of the, errr… filter chat?


E-mail hits productivity more than smoking dope

E-mail was supposed to enhance productivity right? Well in fact the daily distractions of e-mails and instant messages cause a greater loss of IQ than smoking marijuana. Constant interruptions reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic, according to a TNS Research survey of 1,100 Britons showing:

  • Almost two out of three people check their electronic messages out of office hours and when on holiday
  • Half of all workers respond to an e-mail within 60 minutes of receiving one
  • One in five will break off from a business or social engagement to respond to a message.
  • Three out of 10 people believed answering messages during face-to-face meetings was not only acceptable, but a sign of diligence and efficiency.
But Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” Wilson said. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”

Note – this is 2005 research but I happened across it today and it reinforces something I have blogged about here in the past. Surely the problem has got even greater in the last seven years? I would be delighted if anyone could point me to further academic research in this area.

TOTs’ businesses are booming

In tough economic times, it’s the TOTs that Britain should be turning to for inspiration and business success. No, not one-year-old toddlers, but one-year-old businesses. In this case TOT stands for Twelve months old, Optimistic and Technologically-minded (no, I don’t like the acronym either, but I do sign up to the thinking).

Henley Business School research into the success of small businesses identified the TOT, a new breed of agile start-up rooted in tech, as having the potential to add at least £360 million to the UK economy in 2012. Henley surveyed 253 start-up business owners (11-16 months old) last October and found that over half of TOTs predict revenues up by 30% or more in the next year. With the average TOT employing four permanent staff, between 40,000 and 70,000 new jobs in 2012 could be created by TOTs.

Henley Business School’s Professor Dominic Swords says: “TOTs have made it through the teething phase and have a different mindset that will challenge traditional businesses. They see opportunities in challenges, showing the benefits of a positive attitude in winning market share and leading a growing business.”

Time for a punk film revolution











The BAFTAs and the Oscars are the views of the establishment of the film world. No surprise then that the big winner at the BAFTAs this week (and predicted to do well at the Oscars) was a film that revelled in the magic of movie-making in the heyday of film – The Artist. Lauded as an innovative modern take on the silent film, in fact it’s a cosy throw-back to a golden era. Stuffed with cine-literate references to the history of film in a context of Great Art, it’s a good film, even by my reckoning. But it’s not great. It isn’t shining a new light on the human condition or challenging our world view. It’s beautiful and perfectly-shot and, well, easy. It’s a view of the establishment – from the establishment’s point of view.

For the last eight years I have served as a BAFTA juror, assessing the relative merits of 50+ films each Christmas and whittling down longlist to shortlist and then to voting for award-winners in each category. And during that time I have seen good and bad years, but with the quality of films, I have to say, declining year-on-year. Now and then a vintage year has popped up, but the trend is unmistakable. This year I was left voting for pretty good films and performances – the first time I can remember having not seen a single film I was really excited by. Meryl Streep was good. The Help a good film. The Descendants better. Extremely Loud well worth seeing. But nothing stood out as a brilliant and deserving winner.

Look back to last year’s box office figures and I think we may have found the villain of the piece – the ‘franchise’. The top 8 films of 2011 ranked by box-office takings were all sequels or franchises – the latest Harry Potter, Transformers and Twilight Saga were the top three – a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and sequels to The Hangover and Cars made up much of the rest of the list.  Sequels have been around for a long time of course, but never before have the top five of the year been all franchises, let alone the top eight.

Of course sequels aren’t all bad – take The Godfather Part II, or the Star Wars trilogy – and the latest Harry Potter has many merits. But if the purpose of film is to surprise and delight – to shine a new light on the human condition – then franchises are unlikely to provide the award-winning script. There’s long been an argument that studios need the revenue from the “Twilight” films and “Harry Potter” to fund more innovative – and risky – original films. But in these recessionary times, the franchise revenue seems to be going to the financiers rather than the studios’ innovation funds.

Film-makers will adapt. Innovation will happen, as so often, in the margins. But now is the time for rapid, transformational innovation. To get films like Pulp Fiction, Crash (Paul Haggis’ 2004 film), Fargo, Fight Club or American Beauty we need a new generation of punks prepared to throw rocks at the establishment and continue to do so even after they become part of it. We need this decade’s Tarantino, Coen brothers, or Pixar studios to step forward. We need film’s equivalent of the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols. And we need them to explode upon the scene with such passion and fervour that it changes the way we view film. Then, we’ll have something to sit up for.