Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Punting isn't kicking

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Until I got to Cambridge, the only punting I knew was in sports. In England, it's apparently a peaceful recreational activity where one makes the like the gondolier of Venice and steers a flat-bottomed vessel across a quiet river.

Punting basics. Photo by: Cathie Jao-Sevilla.
My former professor assumed his teaching role once again in this instance and took me, my two sisters and his friend out on the River Cam, to teach us the finer points of navigating this boat.

Punting didn't seem difficult. As we stood by the port where many boats were moored, I saw many tour guides expertly chat and let their poles slide down to the riverbed, steering the punt in the process. As with many things in life, first impressions aren't always the right ones.

A punt up close. Photo by: Cathie Jao-Sevilla.
Part of learning to punt is going against your gut. The designated driver stands at the back of the punt with an hollow aluminum pole in his hand. To move the punt, the driver has to let the pole slide through his hands until it reaches the river bed and then push off. To steer, the pole then has to float in the water in the opposite direction he would like the punt to go. It's counter-intuitive, I know, which is what caused so much trouble in the first place.

Figuring out the right way.
At first, I was too hesitant. I feared falling off the punt by applying too much energy while pushing off the pole. Thus, we moved at a heartbreakingly slow pace. It was arguably fun for my passengers; they could sit and watch the idyllic scenery. It wasn't as satisfying for me to see the snail's pace I've set. Eventually, I got the hang of it and added a bit more energy to it, but the end of the river trail was still so far away in my mind.

The other problem was figuring out which direction to go toward, and telling my arms to maneuver the pole appropriately. Because the procedure was opposite of what came naturally, I inadvertently let my pole wander in strange directions, setting us off in new paths. Sometimes, we would create traffic jams and we brushed passed other punts with punters in training. At that point, my passengers would just give the nearby boat a good heave-ho to untangle our mess.

By the end of the short, but internally thrilling ride, I was sweating and my arms were tired from picking up the pole from the river. It was quite a workout.

If I weren't driving, it would have been quite peaceful. The punts are perfect for small picnics. As the punt moved gently across the water, it afforded us views of Trinity College, the Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge we wouldn't have been able to see on foot.

Approaching sights from the River Cam.
The Mathematical Bridge is arched but is made up of straight timbers.
Gliding along the water, I realized how important pace was to life and how it colors every experience. Walking would have given one time to appreciate details, but gliding gave us time and also a strange experience of constant movement. It was unsettling in a way that made me appreciate the same view in a new way.

Have you ever experienced an old place with new eyes just by changing the way you encounter it?


London's Borough Market

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I'm no chef, but I love food, which is probably why stepping into London's oldest and largest food market was nothing short of spectacular.

Borough Market wasn't what I expected it to be. For one, it was hidden behind rows of large buildings. Instead of screaming its presence, it chose to hide it. Only when you turn the corner to do you see the endless food stalls unfold before you.

The pristine predictability of modern-day supermarkets pales beside the happy furor of Borough Market. There were people happily trudging their way around the massive space, moving from one section to another. Every so often, I would see people with cups of wine in their hands and I wonder, "Where did they get that?"

I haven't been to many large-scale markets in the world admittedly, just the farmer's markets in Los Angeles and of course the Grand Central Market downtown, but the sheer wealth of food and excited activity here was a sight to see.

My family and I wisely chose to shop for our impromptu picnic here and found everything we wanted and more. We probably bought too much, but we're only going to be at the market this one day, why shouldn't we indulge?

This quiet spot hides the Borough Market.
So many people to jostle through.

Also got a bonus view of the Shard.
There are honeys of all kinds. The man behind the counter was especially informative.
Look at those yummy loaves.
The grilling station was temptation.
See what I mean about temptation? 
Check out the size of those cookies.
Markets are one of the world's oldest gathering places and walking through this one reminded me why I love public places like this. It's informality just invited people to walk around, peruse and relax. I could also tell that in here, there weren't just foreign tourists milling about, locals too were on the hunt for their next meal.

It was that heavy dose of actual, local use that really made the market feel authentic. Savvy developers may seek to build similar covered markets, but not everyone succeeds. I think perhaps they try to put too many artisan, fancy food stalls in while neglecting the real flavor of the place. Borough Market doesn't do any of that, from what I saw. Nothing in the market was too designed. They all felt like they belonged. I suppose more than nine centuries of existence and a century in its current spot will do that to a place.

Borough Market, Southwark, London (


Scottish Charm

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I never understood how appealing a Scottish burr could be until I stood within earshot of it at Edinburgh. Oh, of course, everyone's heard Sean Connery's Scottish timbre, but as in most things, this one is better in real life.

In Edinburgh, everyone had the loveliest of accents with a warm personality to match. My English professor from college was the first to warn me of the Scottish accent's appeal. He said, to paraphrase, the further north you go the accents and the personalities also get friendlier.

I didn't quite understand what it meant at first, but standing on the landing inside a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh, I got it. Here we were, my family and I, standing patiently as the B&B proprietor patiently explained how to get into and out of our rooms, where the best places to eat nearby are, and what can be worthwhile things to see.

Our proprietor can always be depended on for good advice. He thoroughly explained matters and then some. 
None of it felt forced or fake unlike some hotel service you may get. Instead, his manner made it seem like we were some kind of family staying for a few days and it was his job to make sure we had a good time. Perhaps it was the decor in his B&B. Even from the B&B part of the room, I could see photos of him and his family dancing, celebrating and doing the things all families do.

Scotland's great first impression just kept getting validated. Everywhere, people were genuinely smiling, ready to share a quip or two. At restaurants, we get a smile along with our main course. At Cadenhead, the oldest scotch shop in Edinburgh, the owner still spared some time to help my sister pick out a good scotch despite hurrying to do an errand.

We never did get a drink in this pub, but he was nice enough to still smile when he told us their kitchen was closed for the night.
Cadenhead's proprietor picking out a few scotch bottles.
Even when we were unhappily unable to make it to a tour we had already paid for, the company very graciously said that we could claim our tour any time we ever come back to Edinburgh.

Perhaps it was the happy festivities of the Fringe Festival that did it, but I'd like to think that somehow the combination of verdant mountain, fresh air and proximity to the sea helped shape a fank and welcoming people such as the Scottish.

Some Edinburgh Fringe Festival zaniness. 
He's pretending to fly off Mary Poppins style.
Big Brother would like to remind you, you are being watched.


London Life

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Up until last month, all I knew of London was its icons: the Mind the Gap sign, the Underground symbol, red telephone boxes, and the London bridge. I saw all of that and more. What were once place names in books were suddenly real, peopled venues, filled with life.

Double decker in motion.
Red telephone booths. I never saw anyone use them, but they do still look cool. 

Westminster Abbey. 
What surprised me most about London was its sheer density, at least in its busy shopping streets. Droves of people walked through Regent Street. It closely resembled the indoor flea markets we had in Manila. I never thought I'd compare London to Manila, but the image came unbidden, especially after waves of people passed by. 

Another striking thing about being in London is just the amount of history baked into the place. Here, people live with their myths. I grew up with stories of princes and princesses, but in this country, royalty is real. At Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guards, dressed in their blazing red uniforms remind us that someone is really there living in those opulent surroundings. At Windsor Castle, turrets and flags signal the if the queen is in residence. Almost everything is symbolic, as long as you know what to look for and where. 

Changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.

London was never on my places to see list, but my two weeks there was a treat. It was a surprise altogether, and not an unwelcome one. 


A Design Wishlist for Metro Los Angeles

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

A few months ago, I made a wonderful discovery: that Metro Los Angeles has a Creative Director. For more than a decade, Michael Lejeune has been leading a group of 20 people creating all things visual for Metro. When I first heard that at KCRW's mobility event last May, a light bulb turned on in my head. Here's the guy who would know what to do with all the things I wish my ride on the Metro had, so if you're reading, Michael, here goes:

Dear Michael,

I've been in Los Angeles for about four years now. In that time, I've taken the Metro a lot. I use it regularly to get to downtown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown. I'm a pro at it, by now, but I know the experience could be better with simple graphic solutions that your team could create. Here's my wish list for the Metro. Is there a way to make some of it come true?

Tell me if I need to hurry to catch the train

The first thing a rider always wants to know is, "Am I going to miss my train?" Train stations usually have tiny televisions with equally tiny signs telling you what time the next train is departing. Because they only give you the time, I would have to find a watch and glance at the time to figure out if I have to sprint, or if I can simply saunter to the platform.

Can we have a current time included in the signage? Or, better yet, can we adopt what is already in place at some stations: simply telling people how many minutes are left before the next train departs. Below is a photo I took at one Red line station. I think it was Wilshire/Vermont station. I haven't seen any more roll out.

Big signs that tell people how many minutes to go before the next train comes. It's more useful than simply displaying the exact time a train is set to arrive. 

More prominent railway system graphics

The Metro goes everywhere. One complicated lit sign proclaims that. The problem is, the system graphic doesn't help the tourists and locals. It's too complex to untangle in the few minutes one has to wait for the next train to arrive. Yes, there's a simpler graphic of the train's route, but it's tucked to the right and below of other "more important" messages, where hardly anyone notices them.

You've got the right idea, Metro. Display the route where these trains will be going in simple graphic terms, but put it up somewhere prominently and at eye level.

This is the graphic of all the Metro's Bus and Rail system, which no one has time to figure out.

The small graphic on the bottom right hand corner is the most useful graphic in the Metro, but first-timers usually don't see it because the lit sign distracts them. 

Big bold signs and train differentiators

There have been more than one occasions where I've stepped into the wrong train, especially when I'm at the stops where the Purple Line and Red Line share tracks. Tired from a long day out on the field, I step into a train, only to find later on that it the Purple Line. Once again, I've mistaken one twin train for the other.

Who can blame me? Every Metro train basically looks the same. Only a small lit sign outside of it tells people, which direction it's going and which train it is. It's a tiny, subtle sign on the side of the car, which is a problem.

The Red and Purple trains both look like this. The red stripe only makes me think that I'm taking the Red Line, even when I'm not.

I wish, it would be easier to tell what train I'm stepping into, even before I step on it. Could we have big bold stripes of red and purple wrap around the train instead? Instead of tiny lit signs that one can hardly read while behind the yellow line, could we make the font bigger and bolder?

Signs inside the train

Once you step into the train, no other sign tells you which way you're going either. Only an announcement over the speakers confirms the train's direction. By the time the speakers turn on, it's usually too late to step back out of the train. I've often asked strangers "Is this train going to Union Station?" just to make sure I'm going the right way once I actually get into the train car. Wouldn't it be great to have signs inside the train cars that tell you where they're going?

There are no signs that tell you which direction this train is going once you step into the car.
Show me my next stop

Because of the way the Metro stations are constructed, my marker is often not the terminal point of train is, but where it is in relation to Union Station. It may not seem like much of a problem, but whenever I have to transfer to the Gold Line from Union Station I'm always confused. I can never remember which train goes to Little Tokyo or Chinatown, both of which are one station away.

Apart from actually showing me a simple, graphic such as the one available for the Red/Purple Line, can the signs also tell me where the next stop is? Currently, the signs only say Northbound to Pasadena and Southbound to East Los Angeles, but since Little Tokyo and Chinatown are so close those mental markers don't do me any good.

I can't tell if this train's going to Chinatown or not via Follow My Bliss.
Those TAP vending machines can be simpler
I know you guys have redesigned the screen options on the TAP vending machines, but I still often encounter people who have trouble with the machines. I think the confusion lies in the option to buy "Metro fares" or "Add fares." For riders, it's the same thing. Most often, time is wasted because people choose to go down one tree and have to backtrack again. I haven't given this part much thought, but based on the minutes people take at the Metro vending machines, I'm sure we can do much better.

One of my favorite things to show tourists to Los Angeles is that you can get around L.A. on the Metro, but making the ride smoother and less daunting without outside intervention would make my case even better. I hope you can help me with that. Thank you!

That's my Metro design wishlist? What's yours?


Parading Los Angeles

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, I've heard about the Big Parade, a crazy (at least to non hikers like me) 35-ish mile walk through secret stairs, pedestrian walkways and passages throughout the city led by author Dan Koeppel.

When I first heard it, the couch potato in me said, "No way!" Eventually, I realized my instinctive reaction was like the first spray of cold water hit your body on a sweltering summer day. It was shocking, unpleasant, but exactly what you needed.

Grand Park's water feature is cool in the summer.
This year, I resolved to wake up and get myself to the hike. With my knee problem, I knew I couldn't make it through all 35 miles, but I could at least see how far I could go. It turns out, it was a lot farther than I had thought.

I walked only 5 miles of the route, from Grand Park to the Japanese American National Museum, through El Pueblo, Chinatown, past Dodger Stadium up to Lincoln Heights, but the little bit I experienced was exhilarating.

An opportunity to photograph these gates!
Thien Hau, a Taoist temple I've never noticed.
Every few steps, the city around me changed. The familiar Little Tokyo facades gave way to golden dragons of Chinatown, then brick buildings of El Pueblo, and eventually a more industrial Lincoln Heights. The streets that I blithely drive by took on new life, when savored slowly, step by step.

Freeway entrance and pedestrians walking by.
It was hot, yes (thank goodness for sunblock), but the ever-changing city before me was a good distraction. Before I knew it, I looked behind me as we trudged up a hill to see downtown Los Angeles's skyscrapers spread out under me. "I climbed that far!" I thought. "Wow, I did that."

Downtown Los Angeles laid out before me.
There were more than a hundred hikers that came out that day, petering in and out as their schedules dictated. Though, I knew one friend, Patricia, would be around, what I didn't realize was that I'd have the chance to get to know more people as we plodded the city.

Friends (old and new) on the hike. 
Just in that five-mile stretch, I met John, who flew from Berkeley to walk in the parade; Dean, whose brother helped developed the Klingon language; David, who came from New Mexico; Steve, who administers a running newsletter of more than 500 subscribers; and Harvey, who is working to increase awareness of New Deal projects around the country. Everyone I met seemed to be involved in something intriguing. Each new conversation was a tantalizing glimpse into someone's passions.

In his 2010 article for Backpacker, Koeppel writes:
As I explored L.A. on foot, something happened. I found myself falling in love with the city in a way I'd never imagined. I saw it as a backpacker sees an endangered wilderness--on the brink of ecological disaster, yet full of potential. I wanted people to see the hillsides as I do, with a sort of X-ray vision that could peer through the houses and development and expose the naked chaparral. I wanted them to see the stairways as I did, not as artifacts, but as arteries. Their number and health increase the city's quality of life, which I'd begun to measure, more and more, as directly related to how much foot travel is possible, and beautiful, and enjoyed by many. I wanted people to see the city as a hiker might. To see a city with a future. 
Not only did I see a city full of promise, but people sharing in that optimism. I didn't have enough muscle strength this year to do the whole run, but there's always a next year.


Monument Valley: Escher-inspired mobile game

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I am not a fan of mobile games, or many games at all actually, so when two friends tell me separately that I should check out Monument Valley, I listen.

Their instincts were right. Made by UK-based company ustwo Games, Monument Valley is a relaxing, addictive puzzle game experience. It doesn't pack in the action like Temple Run. It's also not as mindless as an Angry Birds session. What it is is a beautiful experience that delights with surprise.

In Monument Valley, you play Princess Ida who goes on a mysterious quest through interlocking castle-like mazes that reveal a new facet each time a section is turned or manipulated, much like an M.C. Escher graphic. By turning a lever, stepping on a platform, or swiping across a section, an almost new landscape is revealed.

My husband downloaded the game a few nights ago and I found myself hooked after only a few levels. The game is only meant to be good for an hour, but I've been eking out all I can from it by playing a few sections at a time. Instead of ramping up to finish the game, I savor it like a good scoop of ice cream.

I'm about halfway through the game (I think), but I can already tell this is one of my favorite mobile games so far. It's uniquely suited to an indifferent casual gamer like me. It offers a beautifully rendered environment of surreal landscapes. It employs a pressure-free environment sans time limits and score keeping, which results in a real serene experience.

Most intriguingly, the game only means to be nominally challenging. Neil McFarland, director of games at ustwo says "The puzzles were accessible and solvable: hard enough to be rewarding, but not so hard that people drop out. We found that it’s really easy to make a hard puzzle, but much harder to make one that gets that balance right." In other words, the game isn't a marathon of a mental exercise, but a pleasurable stroll in the park, perhaps with a little sprint thrown in here and there. 

If you're looking for a good break this weekend, this might be worth a shot. 

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