Category Archives: Personal

Self-reliance, Swedish style

Gamble with grandma

In the UK you must always give up your seat for an elderly person.

In Sweden, this is fraught with danger.

50% of older people will smile and accept. The other 50% will reject you with a snarl.

This is bewildering to a Brit, but self-evident to a Swede. So what’s the difference? Self-reliance. Some elderly Swedes consider it an insult to their independence. You are publicly shaming them with your pity.

You can’t tell who will smile and who will snarl. This makes offering a help a risky business. And not just with elderly people.

We were shocked at first at how seldom my wife got help from passers-by when bumping the baby buggy up and down the icy staircases in the centre of town.

Then we figured it out: fear of insulting her independence. She would have welcomed the help, but passing strangers were not to know that.

So, how to deal with this risk, this game of social Russian roulette?

Most Swedes prefer not to take the risk. Better to bury yourself in your phone and avoid the dilemma altogether…

Living Abroad II: The Nordic Saga

10 years ago this week I moved to Germany.

After six fantastic months in Köln, I was blessed with a humbling send-off from the friends I had made – singing a traditional Kölsch farewell song to boot.

That experience was a formative, transformative one for me. And now I’m living abroad again – this time in Stockholm.

I’m starting to write about the experience – will add the posts here soon.

Hej då for now,


The First Time I Nearly Died

The first time I almost died was in summer 2002, aged 19, when I nearly fell off a waterfall on the Isle of Arran.

My friend Ben and I had scrambled up the side in shorts and flip-flops and we were about 140 feet up. We were about to leave but I wanted to have one more look over the exhilarating edge.

At the edge itself was a rocky ledge about two feet deep, and to get down to it you had to lower yourself about five feet down off the huge shelf where we’d been standing. The water wasn’t flowing fast, and we’d even been able to swim in a natural pool that had formed in the rock of the main shelf.

So I lowered myself gently down, but for some reason I let myself fall the last 6 inches down onto the ledge. As I landed I slipped – my £3 flip-flops did not have a lot of grip – but thankfully I slipped sideways rather than forwards.

Sideways meant I landed with a crash on my left arm and ribs. Forwards would have meant plunging down the 140 foot waterfall, and into oblivion.

I lay there for a moment, stunned by the blow to my side and by the narrowness of my escape. My face was less than 6 inches from the edge of the waterfall, and I stared downwards into the void and at the water spilling past and over me into it.

For six months I would wake up in the middle of the night with that flashback in my head: staring over the edge of the waterfall where I had nearly died.

Life lesson: never buy cheap flip-flops.


Photo: Fotolia/AP

How One Tiny Text Tweak Helped Me Meet My Wife

After dating random friends of friends for a year, I decided to get serious.

How can I increase the chances of finding someone I really like?

Time to try internet dating. Guardian Soulmates.

Spent a couple of hours looking all sorts of profiles (girls and boys) to see how people used the site, and what stood out.

Found that 80% of guys wrote essentially the same thing:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and playing [sport]. I like going on holiday to exotic places. My friends tell me I have a good sense of humour. I enjoy [hobby] in my spare time.

Around that time I watched a Peep Show episode in which Mark is mocking bland dating profiles:

I enjoy breathing air and turning protein into muscle energy.

One thing that stood out in several profiles was when some humour showed through. So I decided to write a spoof of all the boring profiles by combining the generic spiel with the Peep Show joke:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and playing tennis. I like going on holiday to exotic places. My friends tell me I have a good sense of humour. I enjoy playing guitar in my spare time. I enjoy breathing air and turning protein into muscle energy.

Then – once my prospective ladyfriend had been seduced by my witty spoof first paragraph, I would hit them with the real sizzle – something more unique and interesting. I can’t recall the whole thing but at the time I was working in TV, so at least I had a cool first line:

I make up games and gameshows for a living, but…

A celebratory sip of beer, then put the profile live and wait to be covered in messages…

Still waiting one week later…

No messages.

I went back to the site and scrolled through the list of suggested matches. Hmm, hard to get to know them when there’s not much text in the search results…

Ah. I had hidden the unique, personal stuff behind a generic first paragraph. The search results view showed so little text that even my Peep Show joke was not visible. I counted characters and worked out that the text I appeared with in anyone’s search results would be:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and…


So I cut the whole first paragraph and started off with the games and gameshows instead. One small text tweak.

A few days later, I had met my wife-to-be.


More stories like this via the mailing list and @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Finish Theodosian Code before golf!

I found my 2003/04 diary.

On 23 December:

Finish Theodosian Code before golf!

The Theodosian Code is a late Roman legal text. It’s a great source – I almost did a PhD on it. But it needed to be finished before I played golf with Nick.

An old diary is a time machine. But when you arrive in that former age, not everything has changed.

In 2003/04 I was in my final year at Oxford. But it was not a life of pure pseudo-academic splendour. In the same week I had:

  • White tie ball at New College (26 June)
  • Start work as a pot washer in a restaurant back home (30 June)

Juxtapositions like this – Roman law and golf, posh decadence and pot washing – occur throughout.

There are many things in there that feel a very long time ago – History lecture times (3x per week in term), Masters application deadlines (mostly 15 Jan), family events with long-passed relatives (late April),  and cooking plans with long-lost girlfriends (ok, I wasn’t exactly a player… it was one cooking plan with one long-lost girlfriend – 6 April).

But what stands out most are the things that have not changed, even 12 years later.

The same fantasy football league is still going strong, and we even have a trophy engraved with the winners’ names these days.

And I still hang out as much as possible with the same friends whose 20th and 21st birthdays we celebrated back then.

The world keeps turning. But not everything has to change.


More musings via the mailing list and @toddmgreen on Twitter.

God jul!

A Year In Design

I’m no designer, and I felt that I didn’t have a strong sense of what kind of thing appealed to me.

So I spent a year aim collecting examples of designs I liked, then teased out the threads that connected the ones I liked most.

Below is the final post of the project. It summarises what I found and what I learnt. The full project is here: Cool Design Scrapbook on Tumblr.



This is one of my favourite designs. It’s an ad for cognac by Otard Dupuy & Co, dating back to 1910.

I’ve come across individual images like this that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. But looking back through the posts (this is #70), I can see that a handful of themes have emerged.

The idea of this final post is to pick out three of those themes, and the designs that best embody them.

Theme 1: Stark dark/light contrasts

I wrote several times about dark text or images on a light background. The contrast of colours, and the space around the focus of the design, make a real impression on me.

You can see this in the posts about Symonds CiderKuala Lumpur Dreaming, and The Lion King:

Theme 2: Simplified images

I’ve found a number of designs in which simplifying the subject increases its power.

The most recent was my favourite Christmas card; before that I wrote about Michael Schwab and George Butler’s travel sketch blog:

Theme 3: Retro styling

Some of my favourite posts have involved modern references to retro designs.

A couple of my earliest posts featured adverts or travel posters from the first half of the 20th century. But I prefer the latter-day versions – like Cheddar Ales, the Ping Pong Parlour, and Bertelli’s beautiful bikes.

My final word, though, goes to Sanna Annukka, whose designs for Keane’s Under The Iron Sea album were the spark for this blog.

My post on the artwork for that album can be found here. I thought it appropriate that her pictures, having been the first to appear on this blog, should also be the last.

If you’re interested in what I’m doing next, you can follow @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.

~ Todd

Late night radio

Every night from age 6 to age 23 I listened to the radio as I went to sleep.

I swung silent punches through Vegas boxing matches on BBC R5. I knew all the words to Caesar’s catchy theme tune on TalkSport. I had nightmares after listening to murder stories on LBC.

The beautiful thing about radio is the connection between listener and presenter. The best make it feel personal. They’re talking only to you.

But this was a concern in the 1930s and 40s: 

Thinkers who pondered broadcasting were attentive to the potential for interchange within large scale communication… Many were fascinated and alarmed by radio’s apparent intimacy, its penetration of private spaces, and its ability to stage dialogues and personal relationships with listeners. The question was often less how radio amassed audiences than how it individualised them.

Radio was dangerous. Same criticisms came later for TV, computers and smartphones. It’s sad to sneer at these concerns. Radio was dangerous because of its power to reach into the mind of the listener and speak to their soul.

So I’ve started some experiments with podcasting (digital radio, it’s the same thing). Nothing consistently great so far but the feeling of connection, of rawness, of direct emotion – that is what you can feel in the best moments. That’s the power, that’s the danger. That’s real radio.


Quote: Peters, J.D. (1996), ‘Institutional sources of intellectual poverty in communication research’, Communication Research 13(4): 527-559, found in Napoli, P.M. (2010), ‘Revisiting ‘mass communication’ and the ‘work’ of the audience in the new media environment’, Media, Culture & Society 32(3) 505-516.

More memories via the mailing list and @toddmgreen on Twitter.

The Strange Case of Newbury and Maidenhead

Newbury and Maidenhead nestle quietly west of London. Neither has a professional football team, neither is a hotbed of cutting-edge consumer tech, and neither has >100,000 inhabitants.

So when my team launched a Facebook football game, we were shocked to see Newbury and Maidenhead in the list of top 10 places where our players lived. This was in absolute terms, not penetration. We actually had more players in those two small towns than in many large cities.

Scoreboard focused on the English Premier League. Each week users would predict the results of the upcoming matches, and every Friday we made a show in which two pundits pitted their wits against the wisdom of the crowd.

We were big in Asia because we were spending marketing money on reaching Asian football fans, who are under-served with good Premier League content other than the live matches. But Newbury and Maidenhead — what was going on there?

The questions stumped me for weeks until I stumbled across an academic paper: The Spread of Behaviour in an Online Social Network Experiment, published by Damon Centola in Science (2010) and summarised here by MIT.

The paper looks at the spread of behaviour through two networks of equal size and containing an equal number of connections, but with rather different structures. The networks are pictured here:

The first network has regularly-spaced nodes (nodes = people), and no real clusters. The second network has a small number of dense clusters, with only minimal connections from one cluster to another.

In which network do behaviours spread faster?

It’s the second. Why? Because in order for behaviour to pass from one person to another there need to be multiple stimuli. So a well-spaced network will transmit behaviour more slowly than a clustered network, because in clusters there are dense interconnections between a small number of people. If one friend suggests I watch a new film, I might nod politely. But when a second and third say the same thing, I really start to listen.

We must have hit upon a densely-connected network of football fans in Newbury and Maidenhead. One or two started playing, then invited friends to play, and soon those inside the network must have been receiving multiple invitations and decided to give it a go.



Perhaps this happens more often in smaller settlements than larger ones. re/code just published an article about Pocket Gems’s players, showing that their most intense US gamers are in small towns, not big cities.

If we did that project again I’d spend the whole marketing budget targeting very specific groups of potential players — and I’m sure I would get more bang for each buck.

The British comedian Norman Wisdom is a hero in Albania. Maybe one day there’ll be a statue of Scoreboard presenter Dougie Anderson in Newbury and Maidenhead.


Reference: Centola, D. (2010), The Spread of Behaviour in an Online Social Network Experiment. Science 329(5996), 1194-1197. Summary:

Get more strange sociological stories via @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Tennis Trials fail

My big chance! And I messed it up.

I was ten years old and had been invited to the county tennis trials. All the kids were lined up on the side of the court.

The coach said:

Bounce the ball across these three courts, turn round when you reach the fence, then come back. But you can’t use the strings. You have to bounce it with the edge of the racket, on the side of the frame.

Uh-oh. Never done this before…

“Ok – go!”

Twenty-seven other kids threw down their tennis balls and started bouncing them across the the courts.

I dropped mine, twisted my racket on its side, and tried to tap the ball down and forwards so that I could set off too.

Ding! My ball hit an edge on my racket and shot off to the left.

I chased it, grabbed it and tried again.

Bing! This time I’d hit it squarely but too far back on the frame – it bounced back into my stomach.

The other kids had already crossed the first court.

Ok, and again – thock! I caught it too far forward on the frame and the ball whizzed ahead of me up the court. Phew, at least now I could move off the starting line.

The charade continued for what felt like an hour until someone merciful called a halt. I hadn’t yet made the fence, never mind turned around and come back.

20+ years later, I still feel embarrassed about it.

You can’t prepare for everything, and I didn’t have the talent to wing it first time.

But that’s ok. I can bounce the ball with the side of the racket now.

I got there in the end.


More balls from @toddmgreen on Twitter.

A silent thank you!

Aw yeah, we’ve got to get home in time for Quizmania!

I was dog-tired, jet-lagged after a 24-hour flight, and now I was packed into a late-night train in Melbourne.

I laughed, and the student who had spoken looked at me curiously. I had to explain. I had just flown halfway around the world to spend three weeks with the Quizmania team. At least someone was watching…


In the marble halls of Bush House, the ancestral home of the BBC World Service, there were hundreds of portraits. Each was a black-and-white photo of a single person – world leaders like Mandela, explorers like Randolph Fiennes, cultural heroes like Maya Angelou. And on each portrait was a quote from that person, explaining why the BBC World Service meant so much to them.

Instead of taking the lift, I used to walk up the eight flights of stairs to my team’s office so that I could read those portraits.


Every day on the metro I see people playing Candy Crush Saga. That means I can start work knowing that whatever we do today will affect a real person. It’s not just code and pixels, people really see the stuff we do.

This is a genuine privilege!

I’ve had that privilege several times over – first at the BBC making radio, then at FremantleMedia making TV, and now at King making games.

Every time I see someone playing Candy, I say a silent ‘thank you’ in my head. If that was you this morning – thank you!


More little tack så myckets via @toddmgreen on Twitter.