Sunday, 30 September 2012

The New 30

Back to the Future is on TV this evening, which is appropriate because I've been thinking about it recently. Not so much the actual film (although I always have time for it and its sequel), but more the fact that 30 years doesn't seem such a long time anymore.

There's always a lot of talk about how 40 is the new 30, but it usually means that people are doing things at the age of 40 that previous generations did at the age of 30. I think, though, that 40 is also the new 30 in entertainment, specifically in time travel stories and in flashbacks.

I remember noticing this for the first time when I was watching Battlestar Galactica: Razor, which has flashbacks to the Cylon War four decades previous. At first that struck me as a gigantic span of time - how old was Bill Adama anyway? But then I did the math, and figured if he was flying against the Cylons in his 20s, and running away from them in his 60s, then it made sense.

What'd you say about running away, punk?

Contrast this with Back to the Future - if you wanted a time to contrast with 1985, then 1955 was a pretty good bet. For one thing it felt properly remote, but not so much so that Marty's parents would be too young - or, in the 1985 portions of the movie, too old. And frankly, 30 years was pretty much all the parents were rated for - back in the 80s a person in their 60s clearly had one foot in the grave. Whereas now, someone in their 60s can reasonably look forward to about 20 or 30 more years of rollerblading and managing their diabetes (which is what old folks get up to, if TV commercials are to be believed).

"Time to plan my retirement, then roller-blading 'til I drop!"

If you need another example, Men in Black 3 does go back in time less than 40 years (back to 1969, to be precise), but I think it still contributes to my thesis. Going back exactly 30 years would have taken Will Smith's character back to 1972, and the 1970s have a different feel to them, in the movies at least, than the 1960s.

I'm sure there are further examples and counter-examples, enough so that we could sit here and argue about it until Nike releases those self-tying shoes and our bosses can fire us by fax. But I think it's interesting how entertainment is adjusting to demographic shifts in longevity.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Frad Lab World Tour 2012: Maxing Out the Credit Cards in Hong Kong

Ever since I went to Thailand two years ago, I’ve been obsessing over getting back to Asia. It seems a little trite to say it, but it’s a completely different world, one that exists in parallel to the English-speaking world. It’s very easy, living in the UK or the US or wherever, to assume that what’s important to us is just as important to the rest of the world. In the UK, you don’t need to go so far to find places where that isn’t strictly true, but at the same time, Germany, Italy and France get much of the same stuff as we do.

So my first experience of Asia was a revelation; given that Phuket is right next to Malaysia and Singapore, it was full of Malays, Chinese, Indians, all speaking English to one another but completely unaffected by the world I know. I knew I was going to have to find a way to get back, and see more of it.

My stop in Hong Kong was not part of my original plans, though. At about the start of 2012 I decided this would be the year I finally visited Australia. I made sure to broadcast this fact to as many people as possible – like when setting a fitness goal, I wanted to be accountable to as many people as possible, so I’d actually go through with it.

One of the people I broadcast this plan to was a friend who, as it happened, was about to move to Hong Kong for work. She duly suggested that I make a stop over on my way, and further shamed me into action by saying that my initial tone indicated I wasn’t going to. And to be honest, I’m glad she did.

The first thing to say about Hong Kong – which is to say, the first thing I noticed – was how familiar it looked. Walking around the city that first morning, it felt like I’d crossed the world only to land back in San Francisco; but a San Francisco that consists only of Chinatown. Sparkling new high-rises stand interspersed with slightly more run-down apartment buildings, and the corners are garnished with tropical plants or little street markets. It was alien but familiar at the same time.

The next thing I learned, once I actually started going into the buildings, was that there are malls everywhere in the city. On my first day in the city, because I had around 12 hours before I could meet my friend, I must have visited half a dozen of them, all in an attempt to stay awake or, alternately, to find someplace where I could take a discreet nap.

Hong Kong’s malls shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but I guess I never really thought about it until then; I’d known since childhood that you could find all kinds of crazy stuff in Hong Kong, from toys to electronics, but somehow I’d never have expected it to look so much like Southern California.

Of course, all the malls make sense when you realize how swelteringly hot it is in Hong Kong; you find yourself sweating profusely the minute you step out of one of the buildings, and the air is about as thick as clam chowder. I was told that Hong Kong’s social life effectively revolves around the malls, and to be honest, I can see why.

That said, the malls are also there for the mainland Chinese, who occupy a strange, kind of derided place in Hong Kongers’ mental landscape. According to my friend, the stores don’t list prices on the sale items because the shoppers from mainland China just sweep everything up.

You sort of get the sense, talking to Hong Kongers, that they regard the rest of China as the great unwashed; when I suggested that this trip was technically my first taste of China, someone else snorted with derision and said, “This isn’t China.”

That may be true; but it’s certainly much more China than anywhere else I’ve been. And my friend pointed out, rebutting her friends’ claims that Hong Kong is incredibly diverse, that 95% of the population is Chinese, and 95% of them are Cantonese.

Official culture also regards Hong Kong as part of China, at least if museums are anything to go by. I was told the terracotta warriors were on display somewhere, though I didn’t manage to find them; but I did get to the Museum of Art, which featured an exhibition on the Qing Qianlong Emperor, in among the usual traditional Chinese art.

Whichever you agree with, in any case, it’s always clear that you’re in Asia. This is most apparent on the giant escalator that takes you from Central, by the harbor, up almost to the Peak. Trundling up or down with the commuters (it goes down in the morning and up for the rest of the day), you’re presented with a shifting panorama of traditional Chinese pharmacies, Korean photographers, Chinese curio shops, and the kinds of open-faced dive bars that look like something out of Patong, in Phuket.

So to sum up, I think I successfully got my Asia fix for the year from my three days in Hong Kong. Just have to figure out when I can get back. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Plea for Civility in Aircraft Design

Travelling abroad is naturally an occasion to learn new things, experience new cultures and breathe new air, but more prosaically it is also an opportunity to evaluate a new airline (even if this evaluation is based on the rather limited view from the economy seats). I generally clock enough long-haul miles at Christmas that I feel like I've figured out how best to ensconce myself in my little cocoon for about ten hours at a time; flying on new airlines forces me to modify my tactics.

Before I go any farther, I'll point out the obvious, if glossed-over, fact: every airline's economy section is pretty much the same. Tiny seats, no legroom, and the undying hatred of the airline staff if you go off-script in any way. The food is typically uninspiring and the cutlery is plastic, which is undoubtedly to reduce the plane's weight, but also reminds the passenger that he is no more than one of the Great Unwashed. The Communist Manifesto starts to make sense when you travel economy.

That said, there are a couple of differences between airlines. These generally relate to the overall design of a plane, and can be navigated with the use of sites like Others relate to the kind of food you get on board - Thai Airways always has a delicious Thai dish on offer, while Cathay Pacific actually gives you a third option beyond "beef or chicken", namely some form of noodles. And if you're really unlucky, you might find yourself on a long-haul flight without a personal video screen, forced to die a little inside as everyone else in your row laughs at Marmaduke (this actually happened).

But, pace Slate's Witold Rybczynski, there really is more to say about seat design in economy than packing folks in as closely as possible. For example, given that the personal video screen is pretty much ubiquitous now (other than on Thai Airways), it leads to questions about where to put the controls for the damn thing. Does it go in the seat-back, under the screen? Or do you put it somewhere in the armrest?

Cathay, I learned in the last couple of weeks, goes for the former, while Virgin and British Airways prefer different versions of the latter. BA puts them on top of the armrest, where a clumsy elbow can change the channel or knock the volume to ear-splitting levels; Virgin, by contrast, goes for the inside of the armrest, which effectively limits your range of movement even further, if such a thing is possible. Over the last few Christmases I've innocently shifted in my seat only to drive the volume up way past tolerable.

There's also the seat pocket in front of you, where the in-flight magazine and air-sickness bags live. Cathay prefers plastic seat-backs (I guess because they really do think we're animals?), so this takes the form of a bulging piece of netting that fails in accommodating the book you've brought on board, while also, paradoxically, taking away leg space and making it even more awkward to try getting in or out of your seat for those leg-stretching breaks you really need to be taking.

I could go on, but these are the most egregious examples. The point, as every good architect knows, is that form follows function: Richard Branson or Willie Walsh or whoever runs Cathay doesn't give a flying shit (pun intended) about economy travellers' comfort, but it would be nice if whoever designed the interiors of the plane ever had to actually sit in the seats they've devised.

Or to put it another way, just look at Ryanair: the seats don't move, the legroom is negligible and the seat-backs are plastic; but paradoxically, it feels more comfortable, because you don't have the seat pocket or the screen controls cluttering up your personal space. It's no better or worse than a bus.

Which isn't to say that the long-haul carriers should emulate Ryanair; Michael O'Leary clearly has nothing but contempt for his customers. But Virgin, BA and the rest should remember that they aren't running a bus service. A thoughtfully designed economy section would win them more repeat business.