Sunday, October 11, 2009

Trans-Pacific Adventures


Connections in Dallas

I just landed from a three week trip to the USA, taking in Miami and Austin, with brief stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The last time I was here, was right at the end of my Cambridge University masters; and it therefore offers rather a convenient moment of Texan-style punctuation from which to reflect and digest.

What a long way I have come. The first time was trans-Atlantic with nothing more than a backpack, a Greyhound ticket via San Antonio, a whim and perhaps a prayer. The next was trans-Pacific, taking in a global design conference, and with an extended stay at the Austin mothership, visiting colleagues that have become firm friends. I have, geographically-speaking at least, come full circle.

It also allows me to look at my Asian experience and life through a different, Americana, lens. I am positive I could feel myself being 'reculturalized' (as our resident Cuban, Pedro, so eloquently puts it) back to Western ways in a way I did not feel when returning to Blighty, perhaps because I am on holiday when I head back there. It's a good feeling to head back to the office with a bit more confrontational spirit and less of the passive-aggressiveness reticence.

Usually, I enjoy writing these blog posts on the way through the trip. I think I felt some mild feeling of vertigo, however, as I imagined a virtual life in the USA, and re-imagined my Asian life; which felt more like a daydream, frankly - Kyoto to Taipei to Shanghai to Miami to Texas ... what a head spin!

Jet lag is oozing from every pore of my being right now ... time to sort out some photos, unpack and have a coffee. Good to be back to the daydream!

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Austin City Limits


ACL

Finally, after 18 months of pestering, I got the tickets booked to Austin, Texas; and a visit to our mother ship. Ostensibly to indoctrinate myself with some 'new hire training', and learning techniques and approaches of the chaps in ADC, I was also more than happy to piggy back the trip with calling in at the IDSA conference in Miami, and spending some serious time in and around Austin ... timed perfectly for the Austin City Limits (ACL) music festival; one of the largest musical gatherings in the USA (it's almost like I planned this trip...!).


At the classic Continental club, with local Country fixture, Dale Watson.


Gorgeous skies at ACL - at least on the first night. Highlights were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though I also caught Thievery Corporation and Kings of Leon.


There can only be so many sunset photos. Or so I thought.


Dedicated fans.


ACL bracelet, plus the ticket to the fantastic secret Broken Social Scene after-show party.


Paul B rockin' the 'Bans.


See of digitalia.


Renovated power station was a fan-tas-tic venue for an after-show.


Broken Social Scene in Austin.


Team Dell.


Wall of staples are a testament to the amazing amount of live music on offer here.

Now, before I joined Dell, I had barely spent 24 hours in Texas, crossing through from Louisiana, en-route to El Paso and Meso-America. On that occasion, I had woken up on my Grayhound ordeal merely to see tumble weeds floating through a very one-and-a-half-horse-town, and again at the charming border crossing. I therefore had very few positive preconceptions, building my mental image from a bevy of cowboy films, maps of voting behaviour, and the ultimate social barometer; Homer Simpson.

It has been somewhat surprising, therefore, to hear positive story after positive story about the place, both from people that grew up there, and from people moving in, or merely visiting. Much like my university town of Glasgow, or indeed Taiwan, this was a well-kept secret that I was more than happy to hear about.

Austin is a strange town. Somehow reconciling the diametrically (trimetrically?) opposed facets of A. Triathletes B. Hippies and C. Partying, often in the same person, it offered a plethora of activities that I was delighted to partake in. And partake I did, squeezing it between bouts in the office, and spending time with colleagues that I have got to know pretty well while they have visited Taiwan.


The view from near my hotel, up to the State Capitol.


And yet, at the same time there is a large 'alternative' vibe, manifesting itself with these FABULOUS Airstream caravans, dishing out cup cakes, burritos and coffee. Adorable.

The first activity, mountain biking, I have already eulogised about in my post here. To counterbalance the first, the second activity must be the food. And eat I did. Texmex is a food that I have eaten plenty before - or so I thought. The care taken in preparing the dishes, and the obvious affection that people displayed was infectious. The food was a delight, tingling the taste buds and delighting with a subtle balance of fresh ingredients, spices and contrasting textures. I had several memorable meals, and was so enthusiastic that during my time there I kept a record of where I was visiting on a map, that I must present below. Highlights for me: the 'charcoal' salsa at the Iguana Grill, Mole at Manuel's, and something that sounds like Rilletos at Chuy's. Foolishly, I did miss out on the breakfast tacos. Next time.



View Austin in a larger map

The other staple of the Texan weekend diet is the barbecue. A delicious, cholesterol-packed bolus dose of meat and potato salad is great the first few times, but I have to say I was turning my nose up at it by the end. In fact, for the first week after I got back, I could hardly look at a chunk of meat in the same way. The sheer amount of flesh that is consumed in this country is absurd, and it really is part of the psyche. Or a major cause of - I am not sure. Delicious and crazy - but in short-lived doses please.


Pioneer Spirit!

End-of-term assessment; a resounding positive. It was an unmissable two weeks of professional development, mixed in with a much deeper understanding of the ingredients that came to make up Dell. Texas is undoubtedly a very different culture from that of the coasts, and I would hazard a guess that Austin is different once again from the surrounding state. Certainly, it is a place I would like to return to and learn a little more about - but next time starting the day with a proper Breakfast Burrito!

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mountain Biking Austin


Myself, Tony, Ken and Sandra ... ready to roll!

I am almost positive that if I did ever end up moving to Austin, my waist line would do one of two things, depending on a series of decisions I would need to make. These decisions would essentially revolve around two of the central tenets of Austin culture; high-intensity sport, and high-calorie Texmex food. Until the middle weekend in Austin, I had done a fantastic job at tackling the second of the two pillars, but an astoundingly poor job of moving the centre of gravity (literally and figuratively) the other way.

Luckily, Ken (my big boss), Sandra (big boss' wife, and former pro-mountain biker) and Tony (shave-legged roadie compatriot from the Austin design team) were on hand to lead me round a few of the best trails in and around Austin; quite literally on a large portion of the population's doorsteps.

I spent the week sorting a bike out, eventually opting for a 5" Trek Fuel EX8 from Mellow Johnnie's bike shop - owned by Lance Armstrong no less. I also took the opportunity to top-up on bike kit and clothing that tends to be more expensive or simply unavailable in my size back on the ROC.


Trek Fuel Ex8

We tackled the Green Belt the first day, escaping the rain just as we returned to the cars (the best type of rain?). It mixed in highly technical rocky sections that were reminiscent of our own 'Graveyard' run, but with long flat-out sections where it was possible to stretch your legs in ways impossible in Taiwan. Tony is pretty bleeding fit, and we laid down some rubber for the final kilometres, with Sandra hot on our tail whooping encouragement and tips at us sweaty guys in the engine room at the front. Texmex perfectly filled the hole left by the early start and the exertion.


Pioneer spirit


I was pretty impressed with the Trek, both up hill and down dale.


It was certainly much tighter than the average rental bike, and seemed to have similar responses to my Giant Trance.


Tony, rocking a similar vintage bike to the one I ride back home.


Sandra - a wolf in sheep's clothing. Wonderful to ride with!


Tony and I both flatted on the same rock step, within seconds of each other. As ever, the CO2 cartridges managed to spray a mixture of ice and condensed water everywhere except into the tube.


Trail vision


Hanging on, back up the hill


Tony - I want to see you with some better equipment next time - bloody impressive skills!

The clouds returned the next day, so we opted to head a little further afield to trails that are a little more tolerant of erosion than the downtown trails. Indeed, I was quite impressed to see how protective people were of the trails; riding in the wet was positively anti-social. Not quite sure that would be feasible in the UK. Ending up at Mule Shoe (doesn't that just sound so Texan?) and passing by banks of hill-top haciendas, the trail begins by weaving through an intricate series of tracks with entertainingly technical ups and downs. We managed to get in a few kilometres before the heavens well and truly opened once more, and we got thoroughly dumped on. I was like a pig in shit, but we opted to turn back, since flash flooding is a very real risk.

So, and early exit, but a great experience and two days of excellent riding. Hopefully, I will be back to finish the rest of that Mule Shoe trail some day. I hope I also proved that the opposite and opposing forces of mountain biking and Texmex may some day find a happy balancing point.


Single track heaven ...


... and some more mechanical hell. Typically - just as the downpour begins.


Mud, glorious mud.


Water splash 1


Water splash 2


Rain stops play - and Ken has rather a nice toy!


Sandra and I enjoy drying off a little


While I am left with the distinct memory that Austin is wet and rainy!

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Miami Vices


Delightful Americana on display

Persistence pays off! Months of angling to score a trip to the USA, and I line up three weeks in Miami and Texas, with brief stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Miami was host to this year's annual IDSA conference - a meeting of minds and bodies from the Industrial Design Society of America. I expected great things - the finest brains in the industry, a broad cross-section of consultancies, in-housers and orbiting services, and five days in one of the most cosmopolitan style-spots in the Americas. The scene was set for some challenging debate about the future of the industry, questions around our changing roles as creative thinkers, and reflection on some of the global macro-trends shaping the planet.

But before all that, a brief Architectural interlude:


Neon

In order to at least slightly offset some of the crushing 12-hour jetlag, I arrived a day early, and set about taking in as much of the delightful Art-Deco district as possible. In their infinite wisdom, the area narrowly escaped complete destruction in the 80s at the hands of imaginative hotel developers, and we are today left with a superb slice of kitsch Americana that cannot fail to warm the soul in its bright hopefulness.

Add into the mix a large Latino population (fronted by our own Cuban-Miamian, Pedro), large quantities of aerospace-grade silicon, 22-inch rimmed cruisers and loud loud music ... and you have yourself a rather efficient distraction from the more mundane activities at the conference.


Balmy. Barmy.


Cavalier Attitude


I did also see the place in the daytime, honest.


Post-modern postcards


Several of the hotels kept classic cars on-hand to tempt gullible photographers into stopping for over-priced coffees. Which, worked just great.


Heydays in the sun


There were new Camaros and Mustangs everywhere, but none of them challenges the considered delicacy of the original, if you ask me. The new ones just seem like they were designed as toys, and scaled up accordingly, which may have been true.


The style extends to the interior of the local restaurants, which in many cases seem untouched from the 50s.

But enough of the tourist attractions - back to the conference, and some man-sized debate about ... oh ... everyone is by the pool?


A theme emerges. Perhaps different from the one envisaged by the organisers.


Friday night Ocean Drive showmanship.

In the first days of the conference, I endeavoured to attend as many sessions as I could, constructing a buffet of strategy, techniques and more out-there subjects like how the Human Genome Project could effect design. I have to say, however, that I had a sinking realisation that the sessions were not as meaty as I was expecting, and that in actual fact, the people that I wanted to meet, and the people that I wanted to spend more time with were all creating their own buffet, and only dipping into the sessions that most piqued their interest.


The Pedromobile!

And indeed, the most memorable events were those extra-curricular activities that had Pedro leading us a merry- dance through the back streets of Miami, ending up one night at a most delightful little bistro in Little Haiti. A Jamaican restaurant. Run by a pair of Indians. Cooking Indian-Jamaican fusion food out the back of a local store; complete with riot screen, security cameras and cans of Red Stripe to wash it down with.


"Culturalization"


Roti + Jerk Chicken = Yum


Washed down with some delicious glucose-delivery syrups


The tips jar was in no danger of walking off


Pedro bonds with the locals


Team Miami.


Big brother.


Time to leave.

So what of the conference? I went expecting to professionally broaden my mind. For that, I was disappointed. The dialogue I expected to see - the rise of China, commoditisation of design, the role user-interface and software design, the notions around Design Thinking - simply were not successfully addressed; at least in the main sessions. There was a faint whiff in the air of self-congratulatory 1980s excess, and a blissful ignorance of the realities that face our profession. John Kolko of Frog Design pretty much nailed it in his article "End of an Era", which sums up many of my own thoughts. You have to take it with a grain of salt - if there is one thing Frog seems able to do, it is talk the big talk. Indeed, Frog, Smart, Ideo and others are positioning themselves 'above' basic ID, and aligning themselves alongside the Andersons and McKinseys of the world, which I am not totally convinced by yet. I find it interesting that the 'conversation' that is driving ID is one of business, rather than a more philosophical skew, as-per architecture.

Above and beyond this, however, I met up with colleagues and old friends, made new friends and contacts, and took away some great memories.


MIAMI VICE

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