Thursday 3 March 2016


Hugh Lofting was an engineer who served in the Irish Guards during WWI and saw loathsome things and probably did some too. News from the front was either "too horrible or too dull" to write home about and so he wrote illustrated stories for his children back home in Blighty. In the 1920s, these were gathered into a book called The Story of Dr Doolittle, which spawned a series of books about this Doctor who could talk to animals.  One of his pals was the pushmi-pullyu which was a two-headed llama-like creature that could go either way, If if you angle things judiciously you can create a temporary pushmi-pullyu [L] to send out by snapchat.  Dr Doolittle was the kind of book we still had to read in the 1950s and 1960s, because they were 'mostly harmless' and rather quaintly Victorian.  I guess my father, born in 1917, had those books when they were first published and passed them, or at least the idea of them, down to us. Paddy Fermor, famous long-distance chap, also served in the Irish Guards - in the next WWII war.

I was thinking about this after watching this short video about how crappy design, in this case of doors, can drive you bonkers. If there is a graspable handle on the side of a door that you have to push, then it's poorly designed. There are several of them in The Institute. In my Portuguese days, I had an anglophone's confusion with a lot of doors because the Portuguese for Pull is Puxe [pronounced pushe) - Push is Empurre.  But we can't expect Portuguese to reverse the meaning: there are a bazillion Brazilians who don't speak English. One class of Brazilians who do speak English are Air Traffic Controllers - because all ATCs speak English. It's become the universal language of flight even if the pilot and his ATC are cousins who both speak Tagalog, on the air in the air they assume English - not least because other pilots in the holding pattern are listening.  If there is any possibility of confusion, because of static or poor diction, they use the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell stuff out. That's Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.  There are numerous other phonetic alphabets but this is the one to learn in case you're ever on a flight and both pilots get mortal sick from eating fish. The cockney alphabet - A for 'orses; Beef or mutton; C for miles - is a send-up.

I've got a birthday coming up: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman.

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