A Dream of Madness

During a tour of the Pearl River Delta region of China, for one night I stayed at a place called the Ocean Spring Resort. It’s a new holiday resort surrounding a famous hot spring, with hotels, a theme park, spas, health centres, water features, pretty much everything that a resort needs. Oh, and it’s massive. There are vast, vaguely disturbing stretches of concrete in which restaurants and shops occasionally emerge out of. Since it still had a couple of months to go before being finished, there weren’t many people around, which made the place feel like some deserted alien planet.

Still, the facilities were generally very good. The hotel was good, and more importantly, the hot springs were absolutely incredible. When I think of a hot spring, I think of a place like Bath, where they probably have a few fairly full pools of varying size inside a building. This being China, I expected something perhaps two or three times as big. Instead, not only was the building itself rather vast, with at least a dozen large pools, but there were also something like 30 or 40 pools outside. Plus an enormous lagoon. A multi-level lagoon. And the pools were variously scented with coffee, chocolate, oils, and so on. Basically, it was really quite amazing and made me review my opinion of Chinese resorts.

This was a good thing, because a couple of hours earlier, we’d gone to a theatre performance there. It too was quite amazing, but in a way that left me dumbfounded and reeling. Continue reading “A Dream of Madness”

Arup’s Key Speech

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the values that companies hold, and how they influence what they do. Many companies have mission statements or tenets or core values; some of them adhere to those values, some ignore them, and some can literally be defined by them. But are they actually helpful, and how do you come about them?

An article in this week’s New Yorker about Arup showed how they handle it. I’d seen the name ‘Arup’ in many places over the last few years, in association with some very interesting major building and construction projects, from the Dongtan ecocity in China to the Marsyas art exhibit in the Tate Modern. They seemed a rather inscrutable company – while people like Norman Foster seem to be in the papers every day, I never saw anything about Arup.

Well, Arup are structural engineers who have branches all over the world. They work on a lot of interesting projects, obviously, but what really caught my interest from this article was what it said about the company’s philosophy.

Ove [the founder of Arup] died in 1988, at the age of ninety-two, but he is still a presence. A talk that he gave to his partners in 1970 is referred to at the firm as “the key speech” and is required reading for all new employees. In it, Ove explores themes that constitute a sort of mission statement: the importance of working noncompetitively with colleagues, of engaging in interesting, useful, and morally responsible work, and of pursuing “total archicture,” in which structural, aesthetic, human, and environmental considerations are treated as parts of a whole. In a related lecture, Ove said, “By creating a model fraternity, so to speak, we make a contribution to what is almost the central problem of our time: how to overcome the social friction and strike which threatens to overwhelm mankind. We could become a small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.”

Today, one conspicuous manifestation of the fraternal approach is the company’s internal computer network, known as Ovanet. Among its features is a large collection of technical forums, covering most of the firm’s many specialities and subspecialities. An engineer in the Arup office in Darussalam, Brunei, say, can post a question in the appropriate Ovanet forum about the bending moment of a particular loaded beam, and be reasonably certain that, overnight, the problem will be taken up sequentially by colleagues in Arup offices around the world.

The firm has grown substantially since Ove’s death, but it has done so in the manner he prescribed, by expanding horizontally into related fields, and by following the passions of the engineers, who are encouraged to create absorbing projects for themselves. Arup is a privately held trust, operated for the benefit of its employees, and its leaders don’t brood about short-term financial results. (The firm had revenues of 826 million dollars in 2006, and profits of 61 million) […]

Ove’s concept of the “model fraternity” is really an engineering scheme – a way of routing gravity through a professional organisation, and through a life. The Arup co-operative model is less a business plan than a human structural paradigm; it’s a reciprocal network, in which the load paths are mutually supporting, and it’s the true basis of Ove’s “small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.” Because of the nature of their work, Balmond and his Arup colleagues have been able to achieve something professionally that no single architect, however distinguished, could ever come close to: they have helped design a significant sampling of the greatest buildings of their time.

Continue reading “Arup’s Key Speech”

Yann Tiersen – a disappointment

A couple of months ago, I went to see Yann Tiersen play at The Scala in London. Mr Tiersen is, of course, the person behind the tinkling, cheery and immensely popular music to Amelie and Goodbye Lenin.

Shortly before the gig, I discovered that he probably wouldn’t be playing just Amelie-style music, but instead he’d be performing with his rock band. This was slightly worrying, but I had faith in him and I figured that he wouldn’t disappoint his fans by completely ignoring the music they wanted to hear… or would he?

In short, yes. Now, I can totally understand if Yann is fed up with playing Amelie-music all the time. No doubt he’s done those songs a thousand times now and thinks that he’s just being musically typecast. So I’m not at all surprised that he wants to try rock music. The only problem is that he’s not really very good at it. About 90% of what he played at The Scala was bizarre, non-melodic rock music that was heavy on the weird and annoying, like this:

Okay, so it’s not my style of music and maybe there are other people out there who love it. But not this audience. Most of the people were there to listen to Amelie-music, as evidenced by the guy I met from my college who said, “Yeah, I’m not a big fan, but I really liked that movie.”

Occasionally, Yann would taunt us by putting down his dreaded guitar and playing some nice music:

But of course, it would quickly degenerate into weird guitar thrashing. And this went on for two hours. I really wish he would’ve just played all the Amelie stuff at the start and then I could’ve skipped the rest. Still, hardly anyone left, perhaps hoping that he’d throw us a bone for the encore. But when Yann came back on stage at the end, he didn’t go to the accordion, or the xylophone, or the harmonica, or the piano – he went to his guitar.

“No more guitars, please!” moaned a French guy beside me. Sums up the entire gig, really.

Oasis Hong Kong – a review

There are a few reasons why I decided to go to Hong Kong for my holiday. Relatives, culture, shopping, food, gadgets, China, Macau and Disneyland were all factors. The biggest factor, however, was a new airline called Oasis Hong Kong that was selling return tickets for £275 (including everything).

£275 is significantly less than flights to most US cities. You could probably get cheaper flights to New York at certain times, but certainly not the west coast, which is approximately as far from London as Hong Kong is. Canada would be tricky. Europe is obviously much cheaper, but I felt like going somewhere further afield, and I didn’t like the idea of dealing with Easyjet or Ryanair, schlepping to some remote airport hours from where I wanted to be.

There’s a great deal of curiosity about Oasis flights. Whenever I tell people that I travelled on Oasis, they can be counted on to say one of three things:

  1. Don’t they only have one plane?
    Not true – they have at least two. It’s pretty much necessary if you’re going to do daily flights to and from Hong Kong and you don’t have a way to teleport aircraft. But it does mean there’s only one plane per direction.
  2. Did you hear about the delays?
    Oasis had a spectacularly bad launch day; they didn’t get permission to fly over Russia for their first flight, which delayed things for hours. Let’s say it didn’t paint a good picture of their competence. Having said that, their on-time record seems to be perfectly fine these days.
  3. Sounds awfully cheap…
    So it must be nasty, right? Not so.

Particularly in Hong Kong, a lot of people asked me how the flight was. This is a little odd since the airline’s been running for about nine months now, so you’d think there’d be plenty of reviews and stories, but I’ve only been able to find one substantial review and that was for business class on the inaugural flight – hardly representative, but it was positive. So, I feel like it would be useful to talk about my experience on Oasis. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole thing, then there’s a:

Summary: Very respectable, considering the price. Yes, you get free meals and entertainment. Now, onto the real review… Continue reading “Oasis Hong Kong – a review”

Releasing Ratatouille

Take a look at this list of release dates for Pixar’s new movie, Rataouille. It astounds me that a major movie like this can be released in the UK over three months later than the US. Where’s the love, Pixar? Why does France get it two months earlier than us? Is it because of our food? And surely the DVD will practically be out in the US by October?

I hope Pixar pick up their game for next year. This sort of treatment leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Hong Kong

Just a quick note – thank you for your emails and notes everyone. I have a lot of stuff to reply to, but I won’t be getting back to the UK from Hong Kong until next week, so it will probably be a little longer than that before I reappear. I am reading everything, so if there’s anything really urgent, I will see it.

Perplex City, aloha

It’s said that it takes 4000 hours of study and practice to become an expert, whether it’s for sport, music, dance or academia. 4000 hours works out to be about three years of full time study – the same length as an undergraduate degree.

For the past three years, I’ve worked at Mind Candy as Director of Play, which really means I was the lead designer of Perplex City. I’m pretty sure I worked more than 4000 hours during that time, but that doesn’t make me an expert; it just means I’ve figured out a lot of ways of how not to make ARGs. I know that I shouldn’t dangle random strings of numbers in front of people who are looking for secret messages everywhere. I know that I shouldn’t expect weary players to be able to decode a signal being flashed by torches across the River Thames – while being several hundred feet above the ground. And I know that I should never underestimate our players.

I’m sure you’ve heard the bad news. Perplex City Season 2 will not be launching in June, or in the near future. At the time, I was being honest when I promised that it would launch next month, but there are some circumstances that are out of control of even a puppetmaster. I know that this will hugely disappoint a lot of people, and it’s a real disappointment for me. We all worked very hard on making Season 2, but it just was not to be. And so, it’s time for me to move on.

I’ve had a wonderful three years at the Mind Candy. I’ve learned a whole range of valuable and bizarre skills, from organising an event on the other side of the world to researching how bees dance. I wouldn’t be able to list all the things we achieved with Perplex City – the rich story, the friendships made and the battles won are endless. I feel privileged to have worked with some of the most talented and hard-working people in the business who helped make Perplex City, and to have had the opportunity to make a game for such a dedicated and energetic group of players.

In particular at Mind Candy, there’s the Story Team: Andrea, David, Jey and Naomi, all of whom are also moving on to different places and projects. I’ll always remember the times when we ran live events together – not just because of the sense that we worked as a team, writing and improving each others dialogue in real time, synchronised to multimedia – but because we did it with our players, who added their own melodies to what we did. It was like jamming in a band, and it made a beautiful sound.

I also remember writing the first post by Kurt, feeling so excited about writing something that would be part of the Perplex City. Almost two years later, I remember writing his final post in Season 1 and reading the comments on the forums about it. More than a few people suggested that it was made by a different writer, which I took as an (inadvertent) backhanded compliment.

And then yesterday, I wrote his post that’s up on Violet’s site. It pretty much summarises how I feel.

I’m sure people will have a million questions, but here’s the thing: I’m in Hong Kong right now, and I’ll be out of touch for a week and a half. So if you have anything you want to ask or comment about anything, send me an email and I will get back to you.