Archive for the ‘me me me’ Category

I’m not dead yet!

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Buying travel insurance for my imminent trip to China (Shanghai and Beijing over two weeks – very excited!) I was a little concerned at some of the small print in different policies.

One insurer offered to pay me £50 every day in the event I am kidnapped. Up to a maximum of £500. Go figure.

Another promised to pay for me to be cremated or buried, but omitted the clause “in the event of your death”. Fearing some overzealous undertaker knocking on my hotel bedroom door, I decided not to go with them.

Reminds me of this classic sequence from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life:

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.

Northumbria University Design School

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I was invited to go down to Newcastle on Wednesday to give a talk at the University of Northumbria’s School of Design, now situated in its rather spiffy new building (the one on the left in the second image below)


Northumbria is Jonathan Ive’s old stomping ground. Like me, he got his first break designing for the toilet industry so it’s almost like we’re twins. Er…

I was given an open brief which is always a bit tricky so I decided to do an amalgam of two talks, my annual “Good Design/Bad Design” lecture (where I challenge conventional wisdom on what ‘good design’ is) and the best bits of the keynote I gave in Texas in June (where I suggested university-based design education should be about making a difference in the world, not just churning out industry fodder).
When I arrived in Newcastle (I hadn’t been there for a while and had forgotten how cold it can be, despite it being a few hundred miles south of where I live now) I was pleasantly surprised to see this sign:


Resisting the urge to add the missing apostrophe and correct the spelling of my name (ahem) I quickly took a photo with my iPhone and emailed it to my boss. I’ve now decided to make similar notices and pin them up around my own uni to make me seem much more popular than I am.

The lecture theatre we were moved to unfortunately was a little lacking heat-wise which (and here’s my excuse) led to me forgetting quite a few of the points I wanted to make, as did the fact that the head of design for Philips was in the room and I had planned on making quite a few criticisms of some of their products, including an electric shaver I was asked to review for! (I must post that this weekend, in fact – suffice to say it doesn’t get very good marks from me, largely because of the excessive packaging and use of proprietary chemicals for cleaning). Needless to say I hastily skipped all the slides relating to that but because I couldn’t quite remember where they were I was keeping half an eye on my presenter display ready to click my remote furiously.
I was told later he’d have loved to have heard my take on things. Oh well.

It was, incidentally, a pleasant surprise to be greeted by a never-before seen sight: students voluntarily sitting on the front row:


Despite the cold (the hats and scarfs above were a necessity) and having to skip through the last bits due to time constraints (top tip: when combining two different talks, both an hour long, you might want to chop half of it out if you still want to stick to 60 minutes) I think it went okay. I’m always a bit nervous about these things – as an outsider I’m able to be a bit more controversial than I could be normally and drop a few metaphorical bombs before leaving them to carry on the discussion, and I had planned a few zingers but was in the end a bit more restrained than usual, even skipping my traditional (half joking) rant about typography. Oh well.

I was also a bit down what with it being my birthday – enough to depress anyone the wrong side of 35.

Excuses, excuses.

I was really pleased to be asked and appreciated the audience’s participation in some of the ‘magic’ tricks (one of which I tried on a colleague in the pub when I got back to Scotland that night and, much to my surprise, it worked). I won’t tell you any more about it – if you want to see it you’ll have to invite me to come and talk 😉

My thanks of course to the students who found their way to the new venue and suffered through the cold (and my talk), to Jamie Steane, Head of Visual Communication and Interactive Media Design, for inviting me, and to Dr Joyce Yee for taking me to lunch and giving me a tour round the new building. Design is clearly a feather in Northumbria’s cap and the university’s investment in the building sends a clear signal about that. One that, I noticed on my way home, lights up for all in Newcastle to see at night:


Speaking in Newcastle later this month

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I’m giving a talk at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle on 29th October – my birthday, as it happens!


Chinese Cooking

Monday, August 25th, 2008

After the Olympics closing ceremony yesterday, my friend Qin cooked me dinner – quite an honour! I thought I’d capture the moment so that anyone could follow along at home:

In case you’re wondering, it tasted lovely. 🙂

"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…

My MA thesis Wordled…

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

This is rather nice. Wordle is a web tool that takes a bunch of text and converts it in to something akin to a tag cloud, with word size based on the frequency they occur.

Here’s my 2001 MA thesis on polysemy in advertising:

Click on the thumbnail to try it out yourself, and take a look at these created from the subtitles for various episodes of Doctor Who.

To hell via Chicago

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

I just got back from a great conference in Dallas organised by the chaps on the Visual Communications programme at the University of North Texas. I’ll write more about that when my brain catches up with me – suffice to say I really enjoyed it and met some fantastic people.

But I thought I should share the hellish experience I had on the way back. I wrote this at Edinburgh Airport and haven’t had a chance to edit it – it was one of those ‘get it out of my head in one go’ things…
My thanks to American Airlines for making my journey so, erm, eventful.

I arrived at Dallas Fort Worth airport well before time on Sunday for the flight to Edinburgh via Chicago and Heathrow. When I got there I saw the flight was delayed by an hour (thunderstorms in Chicago – the news was full of floods in Louisiana and other states, quite bad), but as this was the flight to Heathrow anyway it didn’t matter. The poor buggers going to Brussels were given a choice: go to Chicago and hope, go to Chicago and stay over, or stay in Dallas.
For me it was just a case of getting to Chicago and waiting till they’d refuelled.
So the flight to Chicago is packed, mainly with domestic flyers. I’m sat next to a young lad who clearly hasn’t flown before as he asks me all sorts of questions, like I’m the Ancient Mariner or something. He’s going to Jordan.

As the flight lands in Chicago, the pilot tells those of us going to Heathrow that we need to go to gate L8 and get a plane from there instead. So a few of us confirm what we’ve heard and, not knowing what time it’s going (the information screen just, very helpfully, says ‘on time’) we all leg it to L8 which is about half a mile away in the same terminal. You have to go through all the shops and things and step over people sitting down on the floor using their laptops or calling on their phones.
Eventually I get there and discover the flight to Heathrow isn’t going until 6pm, so an hour to kill. So I kill it – having gone to the desk to check this is the right flight. It is.

Come 6pm the flight just starts to board and as the guy at Dallas helpfully moved me forwards in the plane I’m one of the last groups to be called forward. I give the woman my boarding pass, she swipes it and… a red light flashes.
“You’re not on this flight you need to be on AA86” she says. That’s the flight I was on before, the one they told us to change. She shouts to another woman “is AA86 gone?” They’re still boarding, apparently. “You’d better run”.

So I run. It’s half a mile at least and everyone’s really slow and really fat and I’ve got my laptop bag on and my leg’s sore from a cramp that morning, and it’s hot hot hot.
I don’t think I’m going to make it but I run to the desk and see the words ‘Heathrow boarding” and throw myself in front of them, breathless. “Calm down sir, you’re fine” says one of the staff there. I don’t feel fine, I tell her, through gasps.

She scans my pass and checks me in and I go to join everybody else in the departure lounge. I don’t see any of the other people from the earlier flight and I wonder what happened to them.
There’s another flight letting people on and an attendant goes up to the girl and says ‘all done, let’s go’ and they both step on to the plane and I watch the bridge retract, leaving the plane alone on the tarmac. By now I’m beginning to catch my breath and I look around and see another passenger looking at the screen I’d seen earlier. “7.45” she says and I assume this is when my flight is going, which is too late for my connection to Edinburgh. So I get up to go to the desk to check I can make a later flight at Heathrow and I see the words “Heathrow: Boarded”. I look back to the window and I realise: that’s my fucking plane! And it’s going!

There are two passengers talking to a lone attendant at the desk and a religious-looking guy behind him. I decide not to be British and interrupt: “Excuse me, that’s my flight! I’m not in it!” I’m staying calm inwardly but screaming like a madman externally.
“Didn’t you hear the call?” she says. There was no call, I say. I was waiting for the call. In Britain if you check in but don’t get on the flight they shout your name from the rooftops. “I can’t get you on the flight, sir, there’s nothing I can do.”
“But my bag’s on there,” I say, at which point she thinks. The thing that surprises me about the US and Chicago in particular: the security is tight. At DFW I had to go through a body scanner that puffed compressed air at me and made some grinding noises, which interestingly had no one staffing it, so I suspect it was just some bicycle pumps and an old washing machine.
And there are no calls. At Chicago the only calls I heard were that members of the military service were welcome in the smoking area (which is public, so it’s hardly a perk) and that the current threat level is amber. And I think that’s what’s got her concerned so I press the issue: “How can the plane leave with my bag on it? Surely that’s a security risk?” One thing I know after Lockerbie is that they introduced rules that say baggage that’s checked in by a passenger can’t go if the passenger isn’t on the plane. Which is one of the reasons they make all those calls for “Passenger X” to get out of the bar or the duty free shop and get to the gate before they have to go through all the bags to get theirs off.
This hadn’t happened here, and they hadn’t even done a head count: 500 passengers checked in, only 499 on the plane equals, as Dickens might have said, a might cock up.

She took my name and disappeared for a minute, then came back with a man. “You’ll have to get the bridge back out there” she told him and he rushed me to the door. I stopped to gather my stuff, dropping bits everywhere.
Now you know that scene in Star Wars where Luke and Leia are running from Stormtroopers and they come to a retracted bridge? Luke nearly falls in but Leia pulls him back.
Well this was very nearly what happened as I ran after the little fat man but didn’t notice that he sidestepped into a control booth while I clattered towards the open door leading to the tarmac. He started moving the bridge while I steadied myself. Eventually it hit the plane and he, get this, *knocked* on the door! Like he was just popping round for a cup of sugar. God knows what they were thinking inside but after a few seconds the door opened and I fell inside, completely unable to speak, dropping things everywhere. The attendants smiled at me and asked for my boarding pass – but I’d lost it! I only had the ones for the first and last leg of the journey, not this one! “I’m in seat 23H” I said, remembering it from the ticket.
“I trust you” said the head woman – you trust me? It’s bloody amber alert out there and you TRUST me??
Suits me, I thought, and went to get to my seat, still dropping then picking things up.

I get to my seat and I’m sat next to a young woman who smiles at me like “bugger I thought I was going to be sitting on my own” but then an attendant comes up to me and says “that row’s free” and points to the back row in the front cabin, lots of lovely seats all unoccupied except for one American woman who spreads herself over three of them and says “they’re mine” while miming sleep. Fine, I think, and sit down, still sweating from the half mile jog.
After this the flight seems to go smoothly except there’s a screaming baby up the front and across the aisle from me there are four American lads who don’t know the meaning of the words ‘quiet whisper’ who talk and laugh all the way through the flight. The woman next to me knows them (turns out she’s their teacher) and tells them twice to be quiet so others can sleep, which they are for about five minutes. At about 4am UK time I tell them to shut up too and that works for about three minutes. Bastards.

The flight makes up time and we land an hour late. I notice my connection to Edinburgh is actually half an hour later than I thought so I have time to make it. I rush off the plane to get the bus to Terminal 5 (third visit now, still don’t see what the fuss is about) and then through security, which is held up, as last time, by a lack of trays to put stuff in. Unlike last time I don’t have to hold a random baby while his mother folds up the push chair, but I do worry about the large old American lady who’s puffing away behind me while telling the staff she can’t go through the metal detector because she has a pacemaker.
I get through all that and rush to the gate… and the plane’s delayed anyway. Of course.

On the flight to Edinburgh I find I’m sat next to a compulsive throat clearer. But not just a normal bit of throat clearance – he makes a meal of it (well, not quite literally) getting a good run-up to it. Every few minutes. For the full 55 minutes of the journey plus the 20 minutes sitting on the tarmac. But at least I made my flight – I’m going to be on time getting back home despite everything!

The flight lands (during the flight the staff try to wheel the breakfast trolley up the aisle while the plane’s still ascending and all the meals slide out on to the floor, but as I got mine I don’t chalk that up as a personal event in teh catalogue of disasters) and we all go to belt 6 to get our bags. Now I remember joking with the guy at DFW as my bag disappeared behind him. “Will it get transferred all the way to Edinburgh?” I asked him. “It should” he said, “but this is an airline”. I watched it go off fearing I’d never see it again and wondering if I’d been insured for the trip.
Belt 6 goes round and bags appear. Last time I did this the first thing that appeared was a suitcase handle. Just the handle, with the airline luggage tag attached to it. No suitcase. Poor bugger, I thought and, judging from everyone else’s faces they were thinking the same too.

The belt went round. More bags. More bags. Then not so many bags. Then just a couple. Then more bags! But this was the next flight. Eventually I gave in and went to the baggage office.
“Was there any problem with the flight?” the guy asked me. “Any delays?” I wanted to tell him the full story but I thought it might get in the way of any film rights I could exploit, so I just murmured something about delays in Chicago. He typed something in to his computer. “It’s on the next flight” he said, “should be here at 12.30. Do you want us to send it on?” When he learned where I lived he said it wouldn’t arrive with me till tomorrow so I said I’d wait the 90 minutes. “You sure?” he said. “Oh yes” I said and then I went to have a little cry but couldn’t. So I sat down with a cup of tea (a real one! Yes!) and typed this.
I’m going to be writing a brief letter to American Airlines soon to suggest that their boarding procedures might need a little bit of tightening up. And maybe a few useful announcements in the airport instead of telling us we’re good to smoke if we’re soldiers or that we need to keep our baggage with us at all times. I’m beginning to think I learned that particular lesson.

A Walk Up The Fife Coast

Monday, January 14th, 2008

This VoiceThread tells the tale of a walk I made last summer

Light Show – recursive animation

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Here’s a short animation I produced over Christmas that uses recursive patterns to produce an interesting effect.

The music’s “Decisions, Decisions”, something I wrote around 1992.