Archive for the ‘England’ Category

English Ways of Saying Goodbye

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

My friend Qin, who is Chinese, rang me the other night and after about 30 minutes the time came to say goodbye. I had to go do something (can’t remember what – eat, I think) so I said so. “Okay, bye” she said.
I panicked. “What?”
“Bye” she said.

This was new to me. Normally when the English (I would say British but I don’t know if it’s true of the rest of the UK) say goodbye they enter into a protracted process of drawing things to a close. I first became aware of this when watching The West Wing, and then other US TV shows. In those, a telephone conversation would suddenly end, often without any form of goodbye at all. The last sentence would be spoken and bang the phone would be hung up.

How rude. How very un-English. But how efficient.

I think most of my hang-ups (no pun intended) about the telephone revolve around the whole process of starting up and winding down the conversation. It is almost entirely redundant but you start off with the “how are you?” stuff that takes up a few minutes before you get on to the meat of the conversation. If you’re calling someone you’ve never spoken before you have to give your life story and explain who you are.

But it’s the “good bye” that is particularly draining. We can’t just say “bye” and hang up. When I told Qin I had to go eat I was telling the truth but I was signalling that I would shortly have to go and do this. I wasn’t saying “go away I need to have food”. To the English the signal is like the coda in a piece of music. It says “right, we’re all done but let’s bring things nicely to a halt”. Saying “well I suppose I’d better go let the cat in” is just that – it’s a polite signal that the conversation has run its course, you have nothing new to say and, much as you may love the person on the other end of the line, pretty soon all you’ll be able to do is resort to a bit of heavy breathing cos you’re all out of conversation. The signal is a way of politely saying you know you’re both about to get to the end of the conversation and moving the discussion on to a roundabout way of acknowledging it.

When Qin said “okay, bye” it pulled the rug from under me. “What?” I said. “Bye” she repeated.

If she’d been English she’d have said “ok – what you having?” I’d have said “a ham sandwich” or something and she’d have told me what she’d had to eat, or was planning to eat. We may have riffed on that for a minute, swapped recipes, delighted in each other’s preferences for mustard or mayonnaise, brown bread or white before gently bringing the conversation to a halt. “Okay, I’ll let you get on” is often the preferred conclusion to the coda, the imperfect cadence, if you will, (to keep the music metaphor going) that leads to the final “good bye” and hang up.

It always has to be the person who made the call who “lets the other one go” – the receiver of the call can’t do it.

I tried to explain to Qin the etiquette she was breaking by simply accepting that I had to go and hanging up but she couldn’t get it.

There are similar things in English behaviour: we can’t buy anything without saying thank you several times, for example. I seem to remember hearing a comedy routine on this years ago but can’t remember. Basically it goes like this…
We take our goods to the counter and put them down. “Just those, thanks” we say. The cashier puts everything through and tells us how much. “£5.65, please”. We hand over the cash. “Thanks” we say. We get our change. “Ta”. We gather up the bag. “Cheers”. We head off “See you later. Thanks” We may add another “Cheers, bye” and then we’re off.
I count at least five or six instances of “thank you” or its variants.

It’s hard work being English, sometimes.

Diplomas explained

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

The Guardian has a handy summary of changes to the school curriculum in England from today, including this summary of the new Diplomas:

Starting this term are the first five diplomas in engineering, construction, information technology, creative and media studies, and society, health and development. There will be 17 in place by 2011. [including product designsee this post for news of the announcement]

The new qualifications are intended to be an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels for 14- to 19-year-olds, blending hands-on learning and theory.
There are three different levels of diploma: foundation (level 1), higher (level 2) and advanced (level 3).

All are made up of three parts: principal learning; generic learning and additional specialist learning.

Principal learning is made up of qualifications, or units, specifically developed for the diploma subject and a project.

Generic learning includes ‘functional skills’ such as English, maths and ICT, alongside presentation, communication and teamworking skills.

Additional specialist learning involves more academic theory, an extended project and other qualifications, such as a GCSE or A-level, chosen from a catalogue of approved awards.

Diplomas will also involve 10 days’ work experience, ideally in a field related to the diploma subject.

Remember, if you recruit English students to design courses at college or university, you need to know what’s in the diplomas as they are intended as entry qualifications to FE and HE. They won’t show up for a few years yet, but they will eventually. It would be worth finding out if a school near you is offering a diploma in your subject and getting in touch to make sure there’s no mismatch between what’s offered and what’s needed, and maybe to offer some time to give a talk or demo.

The problem with graphs

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Take a look at this graph. It accompanies a story on the BBC News website about the property market and today’s announcement of Government measures to boost flagging sales.

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The graph plots the change in house prices as measured by two banks, The Nationwide and The Halifax. On the face of it things look pretty dreadful.

Except that the graph is wrong*. The values it is plotting are ‘rates of change’, so it’s a bit like plotting a car’s speed by plotting its acceleration and deceleration. You wouldn’t really do that as you can’t use such a graph to say what the car’s actual speed is at any one time, without making some tortuous calculations.

Let’s give an example. The graph plots changing values from April 2007 to August 2008. But the individual points relate to the relative change in house prices during the year to that date. So if you look at the point for the Halifax figures in April 2007 you see approximately 11%. What that means is that a house bought in April 2006 for £100,000 (good luck finding one that cheap) was typically worth £110,000 in April 2007.
Now look at April 2008. The graph shows that house prices fell by 1% in the previous 12 months. So that house which was worth £110,000 is now worth £108,900 – so it’s still 8.9% higher than it was two years previously.

What you can’t do with this graph is look at the August 2008 part of the graph and say what the value of that house is now, because it wasn’t bought in August 2007 – the figure is meaningless, therefore the graph is meaningless. (This is the same problem you get with monthly inflation figures – a figure of, say, 5% might be seen as high but it means prices went up 5% over the last 12 months, not in the last month. If prices stay at the same level, inflation will be 0% but that doesn’t mean things are getting cheaper. It means they’re staying just as expensive as before)

If I had bought that house in April 2006 I couldn’t use these figures, or this graph, to predict what the house is ‘worth’ now. But that would still be irrelevant unless I was thinking of selling now. But house purchasers don’t tend to buy and sell in a year, but after several years (often decades). A graph on that principle would show a steady and sustained increase in the value of houses. There’s a lot of people worrying over nothing – if you’re not thinking of selling your house then you have nothing to worry about, yet this graph is intended to make you worry.

(Let’s say that house price inflation stood at -10% in April 2009, then I could calculate the value of my home. It would be £98,010 – a drop in value for sure but of £1,990. In other words my house would be worth 1.99% less than it was when I bought it, not 10% less. See how it works?)

The only conclusion I can draw from this graph is that whoever inserted it is attempting to make things look more dramatic than they really are.
Which leads to a suggestion: the best way to increase confidence in the property market would be to ban stupid measures of the market that plot relative values over 12 months. The housing market doesn’t work on such small cycles.

(*Actually, ‘wrong’ is not the word, rather it’s ‘misleading’, but it’s so misleading it might as well be wrong)

New design-related schools diploma – competition or support for product design degrees?

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The Guardian reports that:

The government’s qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has accredited five new diplomas that will be taught from September next year.

The diplomas will be in business, administration and finance, environmental and land-based studies, hospitality, and manufacturing and product design.

Whether this diverts potential design students straight in to industry rather than in to colleges or universities remains to be seen. And of course, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing also remains to be seen. But the immediate(ish) implications are clear: in the next few years product design courses will start to see applications from students with diplomas, not A-levels. That needs some preparation.

"You have to scream!"

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Qin in Brighton from Jonathan Baldwin on Vimeo.

After the conference finished last week in London I met my friend and colleague Qin off the train and took her to Brighton. I’ve been telling her for a while that it’s somewhere she had to visit, and I’d arranged for us to stay for a couple of nights with my former students, Shaun and Amelia. We also met up with Matt, another of my prodigies (or is it progeny? Is that rude?)

Having lived there four years I can safely say I never did the whole touristy bit so I took her to the pier, the funfair, the museum and the Pavilion (which, let me say, is absolutely fantastic inside. I never realised. You have to go). Qin was fascinated by the chinoiserie inside, the Western idea of what China was like in the 18th/19th centuries.

I took my new Flip video camera with me and followed Qin around so she had a souvenir. Here’s the video. My favourite moments: in the seaside rock shop after she’d spend several minutes looking for messages appropriate for her friends, Qin pointed to sticks of rock that said ‘Man City’ all the way through them. I thought for a few seconds and then realised her mistake: “It’s short for Manchester City, the football team” I told her.
Then at the end of the video, about three minutes out, we’re on a roller coaster. I hate roller coasters but decided to risk it. Just before we set off I felt my harness come undone but we started going before I could point this out to someone. So I went round the whole thing clinging on for dear life. As we went round each bend my feet came out of the car and I tried to push back down. Meanwhile I was also trying to point the camera somewhere meaningful.
Turns out my harness wasn’t undone after all, but that’s not the point. Qin told me the views from the top of the roller coaster were amazing. I missed them all. “You have to scream!” she told me. I told her I was saving my last breath so I could say something poignant as I was flung out into the English Channel. Something to be remembered by.
“What were his last words?” people would ask. “You should see the view from here!” perhaps…

Five hours of ‘culture’ a week for kids

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The Guardian reports:

The green paper (to be published this month by The Department of Media, Culture and Sport ) is also expected to call for a £200m national film centre, as well as 19 other schemes intended to turn Britain into the ‘world’s creative hub’. Other pledges include the launching of a global arts conference, dubbed the ‘World Creative Economy Forum’ modelled on Davos, the creation of a new college of digital media and the protection of live music venues such as the Astoria and the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

The government is also expected to reveal plans for a new creative festivals season, a new film centre on London’s South Bank and a permanent home for London fashion week.

Under plans to be announced by Gordon Brown and the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, children will be given the right to ‘five hours of culture a week’ encouraging them to visit galleries and museums, attend the theatre, or study a musical instrument.

And some 1,000 creative apprenticeships for young people are also being proposed, which will be managed by a new Skills Academy.

‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects aren’t ‘easier’…

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

The A-level results were published today (for those not in the UK, those are the qualifications studied at 17-18 years and used to gain entry to university).
Once again, grades are improving, sparking the usual crap about them getting easier, usually from people who think we should still be using slide rules in maths and not teaching people about media literacy.

But there are some interesting things in there. For a long time it’s been claimed that students are choosing ‘soft’ subjects like arts and media studies over ‘hard’ subjects like maths and science because they’re easier.

Well take a look at the results presented here and see if gambling on getting a higher grade in media studies over maths is one that will pay off.

To my eyes, giving this a quick glance would suggest not that it’s easier to get an A in science than it is in media studies (the comparison’s bizarre – apples and oranges) but simply that media studies isn’t a ticket to a guaranteed ‘A’.
Maybe some students are choosing media studies rather than science for ease rather than interest, but anyone who thinks media theory is a walk in the park clearly hasn’t read any! (I mean, really, I dare you).

Something else that strikes me about the results is the remarkably even distribution of grades. Hardly a bell curve in sight except maybe for business studies – another ‘soft’ subject that seems rather loathe to award A grades.

All very interesting…
I have no idea what it means, though, to be honest, and I wish the idiots who get trotted out at this time of year would admit they don’t either. It is possible for more people to get better grades than fifty years ago – it’s what you’d expect of any civilisation that claims to be advancing.

Best views in Britain

Friday, August 10th, 2007


The Guardian has a selection of some of the winners in ITV’s upcoming series Britain’s Favourite View.

There are some great images there, well worth a look, but my favourite, more because it reminds me of home than anything else, is the photo above of Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales (next to the wonderfully named Arkengarthdale).
It’s a massive region of England and I don’t think I was ever bored visiting because you can always discover something new – a working blacksmith, standing stones, gorgeous views, the giant golfballs of the US Air Force’s Menwith Hill monitoring station, or one of the many waterfalls in the area.

Worth a visit if you’re ever in the country and a great alternative to the usual sites (plus it’s close to York, Ripon, Durham and other cities). (And no, I’m not being sponsored by the Tourist Board…)