Monday, 30 November 2009

Could Milton Keynes be Disney World's long lost twin?

I live in Milton Keynes. For a while, I also lived in Walt Disney World (yeah, really). I know these places inside out, backwards and forwards and can therefore say with some authority that they are twin towns. Let me present some evidence:

Milton Keynes was officially designated a new town in January of 1967, placed in the middle of England and with lofty ideals of modernist town planning in mind. A month later, a press conference was held in Winter Park, Florida that would announce to the world the creation of an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” in central Florida. In this conference the now-famous film of Walt describing his beloved Epcot was first shown publically.

As both towns were being built – out of nothing – more similarities emerged. Both towns have their fair share of manmade lakes and parks, as well as roads and other infrastructure required. New technologies were extensively used in the construction and both are glowing examples of the New Urbanism movement sweeping the world at the time.

Because both construction projects were literally breaking new ground, new governance structures had to be put in place to run them: WDW has the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Milton Keynes had the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (now English Partnerships) who oversaw these now massive projects.

Today these two towns are vibrant communities and visited by people the world over. Maybe Milton Keynes does not have the tourist numbers that WDW has, but it does get thousands of visitors coming to enjoy the many facilities in the town. Both towns are like no other place on Earth: WDW with its magical theme parks and attention to detail, MK with its unique architecture and almost magical feeling of being in a ‘city in the forest’. Both places appeal to families and have plenty of facilities to keep everyone of all ages more than happy.

Just like WDW has some iconic structures that are known around the world, MK isn’t that far behind its twin brother: just like Spaceship Earth’s unique geodesic dome MK has the unique pyramid of Bletchley Leisure Centre, The Point and the iconic Xscape building. Both towns even have fairytale castles: WDW’s Cinderella Castle and MK’s castle at Gulliver’s Land!

But it doesn’t stop there; in both places you can find pagodas, windmills and ultra modern buildings – as well as lots and lots of parking. In terms of transport links, both places have great roads, lots of buses, boats, trains and an airport not too far away. WDW of course has a monorail and guess what? There is even room for a monorail (or a tram) in Central Milton Keynes.

What about characters, you ask? Well, MK’s concrete cows may not be as famous as Mickey Mouse around the world, but they still delight children and have become a symbol of the town.

So are you with me? Do you agree that Milton Keynes and Walt Disney World are twin towns? I am sure that there are many more facts that I haven’t included here that make these two not just twins but identical twins. If you needed any more clues, notice that MK even shares its initials with the Magic Kingdom.

I am sure that if Walt were alive today and visited Milton Keynes, he would be happy knowing that the ideals that built Epcot are very much alive in places where he never would have imagined!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sometimes removing customer choice is a good business idea

Every week, on a Thursday, I get home and have a surprise waiting for me. It is a box of lovely organic veggies and it gets delivered while I’m at work. So I get home and it’s almost as if someone gave me a lovely gift.

I take my box inside and almost can’t wait to see what we got this week: lately it’s been yummy courgettes, sweet carrots, fantastic pumpkins and the best sweetcorn I’ve ever had. Sometimes I even get a vegetable I can’t identify and I have to use the included leaflets to learn what it is, how I store it and what to do with it. It is all terribly exciting.

The organic veggie box scheme is one of my weekly thrills, not the least because of the element of surprise. I have little choice of what goes in the box, other than basic decisions (what size? All veggies? Some veggies, some fruit? etc) the whole experience is one where I have very little control. And I wouldn’t want to change that.

I have noticed that there seems to be a rise in the amount of “no choice” schemes available lately, and they cover various areas in my life. Another lovely parcel I always anticipate is my scrapbooking kit from Sarah’s Cards. Again, I have little choice into what comes in the box but I haven’t failed to be delighted every time I open the pizza box. I get the usual favorites, some fashionable items and some things that I would probably have never chosen or, more likely, haven’t even heard of. And it’s great!

My latest parcel in the series of “no choice” parcels is a graze box. The same principles apply here: I get a regular delivery of yummy nibbles that I have little control over and is a complete surprise when I get them. There is of course a mechanism where you can tell the supplier your preferences in terms of content (for example, I hate cherries so have told them never to send me anything with cherries) but the actual contents are a total surprise.

Examples like these I’m sure are many and you probably have a couple in mind right now (Lovefilm springs to mind). They all operate on the same principles of regular deliveries of items where you may have little to no control over. One would think that this lack of control sounds horrendous and goes against the mantra of “I want what I want” that we seem to have adopted in these consumerist times. Yet these schemes are doing very well.

What is it about this apparent “no choice” that makes these propositions so appealing? In my personal case, not only is the lack of control a small price to pay for convenience (I get the veggies delivered and don’t have to worry about going out to buy them) but actually I like the surprise element. It is like getting a gift and the excitement is sometimes as much! Okay, so I don’t necessarily skip around the kitchen or anything, but I do love the anticipation of looking through my box and finding what we got this week. Or looking through my scrapbooking kit and finding the gorgeous papers and embellishments I got this time.

Relinquishing control also means I have discovered new things, effortlessly. I had never heard of a romanesco until one turned up in my veggie box. Now it is one of my favorite vegetables (and one of the prettiest!) I had similarly never used any Cosmo Cricket paper until some turned up in my kit and now I wonder how I scrapped without it. I had no idea brazil nuts mixed with dark chocolate and cranberries could be so delicious, until I had some in my graze box. And so on.

Could it be that these “no choice” schemes are a great antidote to our lives, already filled with too much choioce, too little time? I always wanted to try new vegetables, for example, but whenever I was grocery shopping I would just get what I always got, being too rushed to try and work out which of the other, untested, vegetables would be nice to try. Now someone else tells me what to try! I may not always like them, but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

I love having no choice. Not only do I get convenience, but I also get variety and delight in opening parcels that I have no idea what they contain. I didn’t think it could be possible but it certainly works for me.

What do you think: wave of the future or passing fad?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Frugal scrapbooking

(A few years ago I was in a design team and, as a part of it, I had to write articles regularly. I saved all the articles I wrote then and never added them to my blog... until now! Here is the first one of those - enjoy)

Happy New Year scrappers! I hope your holidays were filled with great times, memorable moments and great gifts. Now that it is all over (at least for another year) many of us find that the finances are a bit tight. To help us all along, I’ve compiled this short list of tips that can help us all save a bit of money while still enabling us to create memorable pages.

1. Use what you have

I know that a lot of scrappers have huge stashes so what best way to save money but to actually USE what you have already? You may not remember exactly what you own, so spend some time organizing your stash and you may find that you have quite a few things you’d forgotten about. Try to create pages using only what you have – think of it as a design challenge and you may be surprised by how creative you become!

2. Keep pages simple

Simple doesn’t have to mean boring but the careful design of pages that consist of little more than paper, cardstock and pen makes them elegantly pleasing to the eye. Ali Edwards and Lisa Brown Caveney are high-profile examples of scrappers that create simple yet beautiful pages.

3. Use patterned paper as embellishment and use more cardstock

This follows on from the previous tip a little. Patterned paper is almost always more expensive than cardstock so if you use less of it you will spend less money and the patterned paper will go further. So save all your scraps and USE them!

4. Use your handwriting more

Besides the fact that it should be an important part of your scrapbooks, handwriting means that you don’t need to resort to pre-made letters, which can be expensive. Besides, using your handwriting on your layouts (even for titles!) means that no one will have the same “font” as you do, you can complete your pages faster and it fits in perfectly with the freestyle trend that is all the rage. If you must use pre-made letters, try using stamps instead as these can be used indefinitely. Or use your chipboard letters as templates so they go further.

5. Use everyday materials as embellishments

This one can be quite controversial if you are a 100% acid-free scrapper but it can save you money anyway. Try buying buttons from haberdashery shops rather than scrapping ones, which can be cheaper. Use ticket stubs and leaflets to embellish your vacation layouts (using an acid neutralizing spray if you’re concerned or keeping them away from photos). Or use plates and cups as circle templates. My favourite is using the ribbons that come on the inside of tops and dresses and are meant to be used for hanging the garment – I never use these ribbons so cut them off and use them for scrapbooking! If you start looking around, the possibilities are endless.

6. Buy quality tools

It may seem counter-intuitive but the more you spend in tools often means that you spend less money overall. My personal experience has been with trimmers: I started out with a very cheap one that didn’t last very long. I now have a more expensive trimmer but, as it’s the last trimmer I need to buy, it will eventually save me money. Another way to save money on tools is to buy only those that do more than one job, tools that you know you will actually use and to share tools with your fellow scrappers.

7. Buy only what you know you will use

How many of us have bought papers because they are gorgeous? Embellishments because they are so cute? Storage because it looks cool? And then we are afraid to use these things because we will run out or “spoil” it somehow? Buying pretty things to look at is nice every once in a while but will not help your finances. Buying only those things that you know you will use makes better financial sense.

8. Buy in bulk

Cardstock and adhesives are the bread and butter of our craft. Sometimes buying these things in bulk can save you money – but only do it if you know you will use them up. Or what about buying cardstock packs with friends and splitting them? Or spools of ribbons or bottles of flowers? We don’t always need the thousands of flowers or brads that come in one pack, so split them amongst your fellow scrappers and share the cost. That way everyone gets pretty things but splits the cost.

9. Take advantage of sales

If you absolutely must have that paper collection, then why not wait for the sale? This time of year everyone is discounting prices so you can grab a bargain if you are a savvy shopper. Shop around and use the power of the Internet to your advantage by comparing prices (don’t forget to include the P&P) and maximising the sales. Just don’t be tempted to buy too much that you don’t need!

10. Lay off the shopping

Simple but true – the easiest way to save money is to stop shopping. It isn’t always easy with all the lovely stash available to buy but think of all the money you’ll save!

I hope these tips help you in becoming a more frugal scrapper. Remember – you don’t have to spend a fortune to create meaningful pages and sometimes the simple pages with heartfelt (and handwritten!) journaling are the ones that mean the most to your family.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Design Thinking

I don’t often intersect my blog and my work so allow me the indulgence – because it really is worth it!

There is a great new course at the OU that is so good not only am I considering signing up myself but I think everyone that likes design, creativity or thinking in new ways should. Really. I don’t think the OU has ever offered such a cool course and I just want to shout it to the world!

The course is U101 Design Thinking and starts in February. It is a Level 1 course (60 points) and looks like seriously good fun, as well as fascinating and engaging. From my point of view, the best part of the course is the course materials offered.

If you are at all familiar with the OU you will know that the courses are conducted over distance (“supported open learning” in OU parlance) and all materials are included. For most courses this means a good supply of books, CDs, DVDs and even quirkier things like lab supplies. However, no other course has course materials like U101. They must be seen to be adored!

I don’t want to say too much about the course materials (called The Welcome Pack) themselves, because part of the course is discovering what they are and what you can make out of them, but I will say that they are unlike anything the OU has ever done. It is fitting that a design course has materials that have been carefully designed. The Welcome Pack is part fun, part education and is something tangible that will certainly impress students with its quality. In a way I wish I didn’t know so much about it, because I won’t be as giddy with surprise as registered students will be when they get their yummy box in the post.

The course itself is also fantastic and promises to change the way you think about the world around you. It is all about creativity, problem solving and interacting with other students. Basically, it is all fantastic and I’ll let you learn more about it. Maybe you’ll even want to sign up!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Travels around the World (Showcase) - Norway

(This is probably going to be the longest-ever blog series in ANYTHING at the rate I’m writing it!)

As we travel around the virtual World Showcase we have already stopped in Italy, Japan and France. Today it is the turn of Norway – one of the newest pavilions and one that inexplicably hosts Princesses these days.

Norway is probably one of the most unusual countries for the average US tourist. It doesn’t have the heavy cultural weight of somewhere like China, isn’t accessible to them like Mexico or Canada and doesn’t have the effect on the imagination of France or Italy. It probably doesn’t figure on most US citizens’ “must visit” list and they probably know very little about it.

I must admit I was the same. I knew nearly nothing about Norway other than it was probably very cold, it was somewhere up north and had Vikings in its history. I could probably only name Leif Ericsson but no other famous Norwegians. I had no idea about the culture, industry, architecture or food from there.

As soon as I arrived in WDW as a cultural representative I had a crash course in Norwegian culture: it may seem odd but Norwegians and Mexicans are generally very good friends in the International Program – the pavilions are together and cast members from both countries share a cafeteria so that is probably why. As a consequence people from both countries become fast friends and there have been more than a few Mexico-Norway couples that have gone on to get married, have kids, etc.

But anyway, the thing is I suddenly knew more about Norway than I ever thought possible and not only because of my fellow cast members (and my incredibly gorgeous Norwegian roommate) but also because of the pavilion itself. I, like countless other Epcot visitors, can suddenly learn all about this country in the pavilion. We can discover their knits, their trolls, their industry and that beautiful stave church. They have some of the yummiest pastries in World Showcase and one of the few dark rides in the park, including probably the highest number of hidden Mickeys. The film presented is a bit dated and weird but it is also quite informative – especially to those of us that knew nothing about Norway!

Being one of the newest pavilions also means that it has a very nice layout, well thought of design and arguably the most gorgeous cast member costume in the park. It also had – until those Princesses took over – the most exotic restaurant experience in all of World Showcase. Where else do you know that does Norwegian food? And you know what? It was delicious!

A few years ago we had the chance to go to Oslo for a few days, to visit one of those Mexican-Norwegian couples I mentioned before. We had a great time – and great weather! – and it was nice to once again have the chance to compare the real country to its Epcot counterpart. So how do they compare?

As always, the Norwegian pavilion doesn’t really manage to convey the beautiful scenery that is prevalent in the country but it does a great job, I think, in portraying what the country feels like. Not just the architecture but the costumes and the goods in the shops all can give visitors a glimpse into what Norway is all about. I do think the film is very dated but it does go someway to show the landscape that Norway is famous for, and is very difficult to recreate under the humid Florida sunshine.

This pavilion is one of my favorites now, not just because of the ride and the yummy pastries but because of the way it ‘feels’. I think that most visitors to the pavilion have no real preconceived ideas of what Norway is like and in this case the pavilion works well. As always, Norwegians think that it is too full of stereotypes and inconsistencies but that is a feeling that all natives felt about their own pavilions.

The definite best part of the Norway pavilion was its food and I can not write a post without saying that I think it is a travesty that the native fare has been replaced with more ‘theme park’ stuff and filled with Princess character dining. It really doesn’t fit (which Princess exactly is from Norway?) and detracts from the authentic experience that World Showcase is trying to create. But I understand that the more typical Norwegian food is still available, just not all the time so if that is the case, I guess it’s better than nothing.

Overall, I think the Norwegian pavilion is the perfect example of one that is truly a ‘commercial’ for the country it represents. It really made me want to go and visit there someday and see all these amazing places, as well as enjoy the warm hospitality of the people. I am glad we went and hope to visit there again someday.


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