Virgin Atlantic, almost perfect

I was just about to sing my praise about Virgin Atlantic.

As a company, they seem to have perfected the customer experience by streamlining and, in some cases, rethinking the process of travelling by taking service design very seriously. John Stevens talks, also very seriously, about the importance and ways of doing so in this conference paper (pdf).

BUT, why on earth is it, then, that they have an email address online whose sole purpose it is to churn out auto replies like this one:

Thanks for your holiday query.

Experience has shown us that trying to advise on holiday arrangements by e mail is not the most efficient service for you, our customers which is why we will not be responding to e-mails. We would love to talk to you about your holiday, talking to you means we can ask all the right questions to understand what you need and then offer you the best possible service.

If you have a question we haven’t been able to answer in our Frequently Asked Questions pages then don’t hesitate to pick up the telephone and speak to one of our experts on 0844 557 4000 and they will be happy to help with whatever questions you may have.

Speak to you soon
Virgin Holidays Limited. Registered Office: 120 Campden Hill Road, London W8 7AR. Registered in England, No. 1873815.

If you cannot be bothered to reply to customer queries, why put the contact details there in the first place?

Admittedly, I could, no, everyone could spend their entire day drafting useless comments like this one, but unlike most bloody rubbish utility companies, bloody rubbish airlines and bloody rubbish ISPs who do business on the very premise of insulting their customers, Virgin actually seems to get most things right and, thus, it deserves a bit of, um, constructive criticism.

Posted in Design, Travel 3 Comments »

A fixed-gear machine

Prompted by the favourable exchange rate, I am feeling increasingly tempted to bring a bike back home with me. Given the UK humidity, the lack of hills in London/Oxford, past experiences failing to maintain bikes with lots of moveable parts, and a penchant for slightly aggressive cycling, my eyes are set on a ‘fixie‘.

So just one question… are you supposed to stop the thing? The blurb on their website says that it makes a good messenger bike?? Maybe a messenger bike for a rider who has a death wish!

You don’t. its like the movie Speed, only diffirence is that sandra bullock doesn’t want to bang you after you eventually do stop it after running it into an airplane. [source]

Not to worry, nowadays chickens can opt for hand brakes. Look how beautiful they are, these are my three favourites:

a) Kona Paddy Wagon
b) Specialized Langster
c) Bianchi Pista

Background from The Observer: No brakes, no gears: the latest bike craze.

[Update] I opted for the latter. Here is how I felt after riding the Pista for a week.

Posted in Technology, Travel 3 Comments »

From the realm of jet lag

Wide awake, I am sitting in my room waiting for the sun to come up.

Berkeley is fantastic so far; the magnolia trees are coming out and the palms are swaying in the wind on a backdrop of pure blue sky.

There is a real buzz to the place, very different from that of Oxford. It is all about corduroy trousers, farmers’ markets and, of course, the White Elephant Sale.

Posted in Berkeley, Travel 1 Comment »

Fear and loathing in California

I am planning a 10-day road trip in California in April.

Setting out from San Francisco and ideally calling at Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park, I would appreciate any comments on where to go/stay/eat (not necessarily all at once).

Posted in Travel 2 Comments »

Accommodation near Berkeley

I will be moving to the Bay Area to take up a Visiting Researcher position at University of California, Berkeley’s Science, Technology and Society Center for one month from March.

If, among my enthusiastic group of committed readers, anyone happens to know someone who knows someone who knows someone who might have a spare room or studio available for that period, please do get in touch.

I am nothing but a sweet angel to live with and will be working most of the time anyway.


Posted in Travel 1 Comment »


Hah! I am going to spend NYE in a place called Llawr-y-Glyn, Caersws, Powys. Good for the soul, great for my carbon footprint – how ethical indeed!

Posted in Peculiarities, Travel 1 Comment »


The arrival of autumn normally falls under the same category as cancelled concerts and chain restaurants, if you ask me, however, this year, Canada did her best to prove me wrong. It seems to me that 10,000 Japanese cannot go wrong.

Posted in Picture posts, Travel No Comments »

Consuming the North


Lovozero, which is sometimes referred to as the Lapp capital of Russia, is a Sami stronghold on the Kola Peninsula. During communism the Sami in Russia were forced to relocate to collectives of this kind, regardless of their Indigenous lifestyles. The outcome is a community in which problems of abuse, of all kinds, are too numerous to be counted.

While traditional reindeer herding activities are increasingly incompatible with modern ways of living and industrial organisation, the skin factory has found its niche in producing meats, garments and other memorabilia for foreigners and wealthy Russians. The products may no longer be ‘authentic’, but the pride in craft remains intact.

Further info:
BBC News: Russia’s Sami fight for their lives

Posted in Picture posts, Travel 1 Comment »

On buildings and peoples

Murmansk concrete
A striking difference between countries is to be found in their approach to managing and presenting buildings.

In England you will find the most beautiful Victorian buildings in the poshest areas of London, yet as soon as you enter through the door you are bound to discover the inverse relationship between inside and outside. Behind the perfectly polished facade lies a dump of an interior. I remember living in Lancaster Gate in London W2; on the outside, the building looked like a five-star hotel, whilst inside the place was a dirty firetrap with worn out furniture and wall-to-wall carpets dating back to the 1950s.

In Russia, on the other hand, no matter how run down a building may look from the outside – and, trust me, in parts of the North there is nothing but run down Soviet blocks – the interior will always be clean, tidy and in a far better state than whatever catches the eye from the exterior.

Perhaps it would be a little too rude of me to draw an analogy to people here. Tempting it is though…

Posted in Design, Travel 1 Comment »

Bloody mushrooms

Mushrooms sweating blood
On August 5th the victims of the Stalinist regime were commemorated in a ceremony at the Sandormorkh Memorial Cemetary. Thousands of Gulag prisoners were killed and buried here, yet the tranquility of the pineforest makes it almost impossible to believe that such atrocities were committed in this very place.

During the event a Russian gentleman pulled me aside and pointed at the ground in front of us. I could not understand a word of what he was saying, but realised he was trying to direct my attention towards these strange mushrooms. He desperately wanted to tell me something and finally, with the help of his friends, he came up with the word “blood”.

I am sure there is a natural explanation to this, but the thought of the forest floor sweating blood on this day is painfully illustrative and beautiful.

There are more pictures available here.

Posted in Picture posts, Travel No Comments »