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Now I’ve seen the trailer, I know not to pronounce Okja as ‘okay-yah’. Really looking forward to watching Okja based on this trailer and the reviews I’ve read so far. Even more so now I know the awesome Jon Ronson cowrote the screenplay. Cannot flipping wait.

Monzo: first impressions

If you don’t work in tech or financial services – or fintech – you might not know about Monzo, although it gets coverage in the mainstream press so isn’t exactly in stealth mode. Monzo is the self-proclaimed “bank of the future. Built for your smartphone, this is banking like never before.”

I’ve been a Monzo customer since 1 April and thought I’d share my initial experiences.

Firstly, the card. Using it reminds me of when I first got the BMW i3 – it’s impossible to use without people wanting to talk to me about it. Every time I use it, there’s a conversation that usually starts with “Blimey, that’s a colourful card. You won’t lose that in a hurry. What bank is that?” 10 out of 10 for branding leading the word-of-mouth, Monzo. The story behind the ‘hot coral’ colour choice is great – have a read at Monzo 2 years on – the startup threat big banks still “don’t get”.

In practical terms, because Monzo only recently got the full banking licence to allow it to offer current accounts, the card that I’ve got is a prepaid MasterCard debit card. What that means is I have to load money onto the card before I spend on it. Hassle, right? Well, not as much as you might think, at least on an iPhone. When I need to top up, I can use Apple Pay which is set up with my ye olde bank debit card, so I can do the whole top-up thing in the Monzo app using touch ID, without having to look up card numbers or arrange bank transfers. I can top up in a matter of seconds, not minutes.

Given that Monzo’s built to run off your phone, the app’s crucial to the whole experience and it doesn’t disappoint.

The app displays your history in an easy-to-read timeline. When I say it’s easy to read, I mean the whole shebang of how the content’s displayed, so money coming in versus money being spent is laid out in the way a normal human being thinks about it, not put in ‘credit’ or ‘debit’ columns, labelled CR/DR, or mashed up with confusing running balances on the same line, like you get with the dinosaur banks whose statements are designed for… well, are they designed? It’s also way easier to see where you’ve used the card. You can also add notes, if you want. I can see this being especially useful when you use the card for work expenses.

Speaking of which, you can categorise each transaction. Monzo does a good job of auto-categorising for you (eg, ‘Eating out’, ‘Groceries’) but if you want to separate out your work expenses, there’s an ‘Expenses’ category. You can also take a picture of your receipt and attach it to a transaction. If you’re on a budget, or just like to keep track of where your money’s going, the ‘Spending’ part of the app lets you see the how much you’ve spent in each category. It’s of limited use to me right now because I don’t use Monzo for everything yet. And, to be honest, while I can get cashback for using a certain credit card, that will always be the first choice.

Other things that are great:

  • Easy-to-get PIN
    I’m pretty bloody brilliant about remembering PINs (if I do say so myself) but I do appreciate the ability to get the PIN directly through the app if need be.
  • Easy to freeze
    There’s been many an occasion where I’ve mislaid a card and a temporary freeze rather than a call to the bank to cancel a card that might turn up when I’ve had a proper look would be much more appropriate. You can do that via the app and unfreeze the card easily, too.
  • Location-based security
    I’ll get a chance to try this fully on an international basis in a couple of months but turning this on should make fraud detection somewhat smarter so the location of your phone is used to make sure your Monzo card is with you.

The future

So it’s been a great start for Monzo from my point of view and I’m looking forward to trying out the current account when I can get my hands on it.

My main fear is that one of the old banks will wake up to the threat of Monzo and swallow them up. There’ll be a lot of talk about ‘Monzo will be independent and remain its own brand, blah blah blah’ but I would bet my mortgage on any old bank buyer ruining Monzo in short order. Buying it to kill it, basically.

Instead of buying Monzo, let’s say there’s a unicorn that exists in one of the old banks – one that’s allowed to spin up a competitor to Monzo. What’s to stop one of the old banks copying Monzo, and using its bigger marketing budgets and the perceived safety of sticking with one of the old banks? Well, nothing. Except having seen what counts as innovation at an old bank from the inside, it would be genuinely shocking to me if one of the old banks were capable of coming close to competing with Monzo, both in quality of experience and speed of implementation.

The other risk is, of course, that once Monzo gets to a certain size of customer base and headcount, it’ll just get crap and lose focus on the customer experience – basically it’ll become like all the old banks. If it stays true to the culture established so far and avoid hiring too many people who have worked in banks – or at least those who have become institutionalised into working within the old banking world’s way of thinking – then I think Monzo will be fine.

I don’t know what Monzo’s end game is – they might be looking to be acquired in the end – but I hope they stick around.

Edit to add: Via a comment on LinkedIn, I found out Monzo are designing with mental health in mind. In fact, Zander Brade, product designer at Monzo is talking about ‘Designing a product with mental health in mind’ at the UXPA UK Global Accessibility Awareness Day event on 18 May 2017. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.

Take the painkiller, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind…

I’ve recently developed a painful condition that mostly affects people aged between 40 and 60, known as frozen shoulder. Or, in my case, frozen shoulders as I’ve managed to have both freeze up at the same time. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life – both the literally breathtaking sharp stabbing pains when I move my shoulder suddenly and the constant ache in the neck, shoulder and arms that make sleeping difficult, and sometimes nigh on impossible, which makes me even more grumpy. I nearly typed ‘Still, at least I have my health’ but I don’t. I will though, thanks to the NHS. Every day I appreciate more and more the point a teacher was trying to make to my class of ignorant 15-year-olds that our health was something we’d come to appreciate more than wealth as we aged.

Another symptom of my middle age is I’ve recently got into cycling. I’m all self-deprecating and self-aware about having a midlife crisis – joking about it means I’m not really having one, right? – but I’m fast approaching fully fledged MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) status. In recognition of this, my lovely wife bought me a track taster session at the Olympic velodrome in London for my birthday in February. “These one hour sessions are an exciting introduction to track cycling where you’ll be coached in the use of a fixed wheel bike and the basic skills required to safely ride the velodrome track.”

Thankfully, one of the few things I can still do without too much difficulty is ride a bike – at least not on a road – as the frozen shoulder doesn’t hamper the cycling arm positioning, so I was able to take part in a session on Easter Monday.

For me, the session was characterised by awe. Firstly, the awe on approaching the velodrome. I think it’s a fantastic building from the outside. Then there was the awe when I made the walk from the changing room and along the corridor into the middle of the velodrome, to be faced by the track surrounding me. The very same track that the British cycling team dominated in London 2012. The very same track that, like most velodromes, has banked turns of angles of up to 42 degrees. (Side note: there was a game on the Commodore 64 – Summer Games, I think – where the angle to aim for in the long jump, or it might have been the javelin, was 42 degrees, instead of the 45 degrees I assumed was the obvious optimal angle.)

So awe and fear, I guess, to start with.

After getting your feet strapped or clipped in and a brief explanation of how a track bike works, the coach gets you to do a lap to get used to the idea of riding a track bike with a fixed gear and no brakes, so that you’re comfortable with working out how to control your speed purely through pedalling. Then you start to build up speed and after a few laps in the safety zone, each punctuated with a briefing session, you finally move on to the track itself. My group was apparently full of quick learners, so shown our competence at going around the track and 1. not falling off, 2. not crashing into each other and 3. overtaking safely, we had a good 20-25 minutes of free riding around the track.

Doesn’t sound a lot on paper but when you’re riding a track bike, there’s no freewheeling. You have to keep pedalling and if you’re on the higher part of the track, you have to keep pedalling fast to maintain the speed needed to stay up there.

After one particularly fast (in my mind, at least) sprint around the top of the track, I went into road bike mode and thought I’d stop pedalling and freewheel for a bit to let my legs recover. The bike did not like that one bit and wobbled and hopped rather viciously. Bear in mind I’m at the top part of the track and it’s long slide down to the inside. Luckily I maintained my balance and got my legs moving again before any damage was done but it was flipping scary. It’s not a mistake I made again. I remember thinking while I was on the steeper parts of the track, ‘How on earth is the bike staying upright and stuck to the track?’ before deciding not to think about it too much and to trust in physics.

That aside, it was amazing to be able to hammer it on the bike in a relatively safe environment and feel the air rushing through my hair and hear it whistling past my ears. I started to understand why aerodynamics is hugely important in track cycling. My stinging eyes also made me appreciate why goggles are a must.

By the end of the session, I was wobbly legged but so happy. I had an absolute blast. If you’re at all interested in cycling, I highly recommend it. I wouldn’t say it’s ideal for people new to cycling – but there was a range of abilities in my group from people who were fully decked out in the proper gear to people who were just casual cyclists wearing normal sports shorts. As I write, it costs £40 for the track taster session, which includes bike and helmet hire. I think that’s an absolute steal for such a great experience at a great venue.

Olympic velodrome track taster certificate

The cobbler’s children are the worst shod

Régis Jauffret got it right when he said that he was disgusted by writers who think of their readers.

Jonathan Meades in Museum Without Walls

I currently ply my trade as a, variously, content strategist, ux writer, content designer, copywriter, communications consultant. I make sure the content I produce or commission for clients serves a purpose, as part of a tactic that supports a strategy that fulfils a mission.

But what about the content I publish for myself, like this blog? Well, here’s the thing: whether it’s imagined or self-imposed, I’ve felt a pressure to try and apply the ludicrously high professional standards I set for my work to my personal output. And that’s led to a paralysis that’s stopped me from writing here regularly because I end up overthinking things, leading to me either not starting a post in the first place (keeping it in my head) or, starting it, but spending so long trying to craft the flipping thing that I abandon it altogether because I don’t have the time or inclination to polish it to the standard I want. Even this selfsame blog post – the ultimate aim of which is to free myself from my own obligations – was started four days ago before finally coming together with the words you see now.

But that’s not the point of this blog. I’m not writing for any readers. I’m writing for myself: for the joy of writing; for the joy of sharing; for the joy of publishing something without having to get anyone’s approval but my own. If you want to apply a post hoc content strategy to it, it’s to say anything goes. The strategy is there is no strategy.

A particular passage in Jonathan Meades’ introduction to Museum Without Walls gave me the nudge I didn’t know I was looking for. Here’s the fuller quote leading up the one I put at the top.

These lectures, essays, polemics, squibs and telly scripts are intended to entertain, to instruct, to inform and to question […] But before that they are written because I want to read them, to watch them. If that sounds selfish and immodest so be it. But it is surely more honest to write for an audience of one whose peccadillos and limitations I understand than for an inchoate mass of opinionated individuals whose multiple and conflicting tastes I can only guess at and which I have, above everything else, to be indifferent to. Régis Jauffret got it right when he said that he was disgusted by writers who think of their readers.

Jonathan Meades in Museum Without Walls

So with this post I hereby give myself permission to seek forgiveness rather than permission and to chuck any old crap up here. Yes, I hope someone, somewhere finds whatever I publish entertaining, useful or thought-provoking, but if that someone is me and me only, that’s good enough.

Jetpack 4.8 and the white screen of death

Update at 6.22pm BST

Jetpack have confirmed the problem: “If your site uses PHP 5.2 or PHP 5.3 and if you previously used Jetpack’s Sitemaps feature, your site will break.” To be fair to Jetpack, those are pretty old versions of PHP. Time to move some of my sites over to a server that supports a more up-to-date version of PHP, I guess. Better information and further action than what I originally published is in their update post: Fatal Error after updating to the most recent version of Jetpack? Read this.

Original post published at 8.24am BST

A few WordPress sites I manage went down overnight and the culprit is the Jetpack plugin. Jetpack auto-updated itself to version 4.8 which then took the sites down, resulting in the ‘white screen of death’.

I strongly suspect that there’s something in the Jetpack update that requires php 7, as the sites I have running on php 7.1 are doing fine – it’s the sites running on php 5.3 that went down.

The (temporary) fix

It’s a backend thing, I’m afraid. I had to go to my site’s files via FTP and rename the folder /wp-content/plugins/jetpack to jetpackxxx. It doesn’t really matter what you rename it to, just make sure it’s a name that isn’t already used. Once you’ve done that, you should be able to get to your site’s WP admin screen. Head to the plugins screen and you should see a message saying jetpack’s been deactivated because of a problem with the folder. That is A Good Thing.

Optional step: if you have a backup – and you really should – you could upload the older Jetpack files into the plugins folder. This basically rolls you back to version 4.71, assuming you have a recent backup. I left Jetpack deactivated after doing this to prevent it auto-updating to the site-killer version but will manually update once I’m happy they’ve patched whatever it is in version 4.8 that’s killed some sites.