Can the American be trusted?

I found a striking bit of cultural conditioning in my head today.

I watched Apple’s introductory video about iOS 7. That’s this one:

If you haven’t seen it already, and have some minutes to spare, watch it now.

The first half is narrated by Jony Ive, Apple’s (former) top hardware designer and (now) chief Designer of Everything.

The second half features Craig Federighi, their top software bod.

I’d be interested to know how you felt while watching the two halves of the video.

I found that for the first half, I was thinking “yes, this is really good work” and agreeing with everything I was told. But as soon as the switchover happened, I felt I was being sold. It wasn’t that I disbelieved it, so much as that I wasn’t able to listen to it: as soon as the words entered my head, my brain captured them and set them aside as marketing guff.

Ive, narrating the first half, is British. His accent is hard to place—I gather he comes from London but spent time in Newcastle—but it’s remarkably unaffected by working for an American company. He speaks slowly and, to me, sounds familiar and quite earnest.

Federighi, in the second half, is American, but I don’t have a good enough ear for American accents to know where from (and Wikipedia doesn’t say). I know nothing about him. But his accent is enough, for me as a British listener, to make me instinctively tune out whatever it is he has to say. I guess I’ve hardly ever heard that accent except in situations where it lacks credibility, and I’ve subconsciously learned from that.

I found this a bit shocking. It’s no surprise that we judge people based on how familiar their accent is, and anyone speaking after Ive (who has a voice good enough to narrate children’s TV) is going to have a hard time. But it was quite a thing, to have that switch in my head made so clear.

[Note: some similar cultural brainwarp is probably going on my earlier piece about Helvetica]

Porto

Porto: From top deck of Dom Luís bridgeEarlier in October, along with a great number of other people from my research group, I went out to the ISMIR 2012 conference in Porto. (I was helping to present a tutorial; you can watch a screencast of my segment of the tutorial here, though I warn you, in this format, it even sends me to sleep.)

I’d never been there before, my wife came over with me for a couple of days before the event, the weather was mild, and ISMIR is a friendly conference with material I’m always interested in, so we had a pretty nice time of it—Porto being a good place to hang out in cafes in, as well as a ludicrously photogenic town.

Porto in fog: GaiaMy colleague Luís lent me a copy of Martin Page’s lively potted history of Portugal, The First Global Village. If nothing else this is yet another useful corrective to the sort of history I learned at school—treating English and (later) British empire interests as a peripheral and rather sordid matter. A lot of it seems a bit too good to be true (did the Portuguese really bring not only tempura and the chilli to Asia, but also cause the invention of the spring roll and the Chinese dumpling?) and Amazon reviews suggest it might not always be all that accurate, but it’s great fun and an interesting departing point for further reading.

Porto: Houses and dogPorto itself doesn’t feature much in this book until quite late on, with the early 18th-century port wine concessions. But what it doesn’t really do is explain how so many of those concessions came to be owned by English companies, or at least companies with English names. Definitely the next thing to find out.

Japan

I’ve just come back from a conference in Kyoto.

I’ve never been to Japan before, so although this was a very brief visit—the four-day conference wasn’t quite enough to get over the jet lag—it was always going to be an interesting one.

Inevitably my perception was coloured by comparison with Taiwan, a place I’ve been to a few times which has seen a certain amount of Japanese influence for obvious historical reasons.

A few things that struck me:

  • It’s quiet. Perhaps this is just Kyoto, but I was surprised by the difference between the harsh door chimes of 7-11 and Circle-K shops in Taiwan, the general outdoor noise, the brash and badly-transcribed classical tunes played by rubbish trucks there, and the quiet door chimes of the same places in Japan, the cheeping road crossings, and surprisingly pleasant tunes on the Metro lines.
  • Similarly, there are hardly any smells. Even the fish stalls on the covered market in central Kyoto don’t smell and there seemed to be few pungent restaurant or snack foods. This in particular makes the place feel unexpectedly local, as if you’d just travelled to another city down the road rather than going half way around the world.
  • Kyoto has a terrific location—a flat valley plain surrounded on three sides by mountains. It has a fairly big city feel (and a greater population than any in the UK except London) but it’s straightforward to get around, there are several small rivers and watercourses dividing it up, and it’s easy to get up into the forested mountains in almost any direction.
  • I couldn’t remember any Japanese. I learned some about a decade ago and could even read a bit but, never putting it to use, I forgot it all again. I had imagined that with a bit of prompting, some of it might come back—but no, not at all. (I wonder how many other things I knew ten years ago I would be completely unable to recall now.)
  • A bit of Chinese was useful though. Not the spoken language (they have nothing in common) but I can recall enough written characters to give a sense of pleasant familiarity to things like street signs. It’s rather nice to be able to see that the Japanese street name you don’t recognise simply means “big west road”. Of course, this probably hinders my remembering any Japanese—when I see 出口 and read it as chukou, my brain isn’t giving itself much chance to remember deguchi.
  • Japanese crispy mackerel skeletons are right up there with pork scratchings as the finest pub foods imaginable.
  • Given the clean and healthy air of the place generally, it seems surprising that you’re allowed to smoke in many cafes and restaurants. Some of my colleagues were absolutely delighted by this.
  • I don’t cope with jet lag as well as I used to, or else my recollection from previous trips to Asia or Australia is flawed—either way, it makes me feel rather old. Though waking up irrevocably at 4am with your body telling you you’ve just had a quick siesta does give you a good opportunity to go for an early-morning run, which is a joy in a place like Kyoto. It’s just a pity about the consequences for the rest of the day.