Monday, 4 June 2012

Terrible user experience is still terrible; bears still at large in woods

User experience is something I didn't care much about until I started working at a software company. Or, rather, it was something I cared about a lot, I just didn't have a useful framework through which to articulate how I felt about it. I found it just as frustrating as I do now when things weren't well-designed for humans to use, but I had no idea that there was a name for it, or indeed an entire profession built around trying to make the aforementioned things less gash to use.

In the last year, after meeting plenty of people who are passionate about this kind of thing, I've found myself noticing it more and more. It doesn't help that the people I know who are passionate about UX are also pretty good at making things which aren't horrible to use - if anything, this makes the many things I encounter which are really badly-designed even harder to tolerate. It's hard to make things incredibly easy to use, sure. But it isn't hard to make them even slightly less bad. So why on earth are so many things so much harder to use than they need to be?

Yesterday, I went to the Post Office to renew my passport. It shouldn't surprise me when anything even closely affiliated with Royal Mail results in a generally horrible experience - in less than a week, it'll be a year since I quit my awful job there and moved back to Cambridge, but the scars from that job still smart when I prod them. By going to the Post Office, for example.

The Cambridge central Post Office on St Andrew's Street has done away with the familiar queues common to most Post Offices up and down this fine island nation of ours, in favour of a ticketing system. Like a meat counter. Or Argos. Instead of a long queue of unhappy-looking people, the central area of the Post Office has a few banks of uncomfortable seats, around which the unhappy-looking people swarm. It's kind of a good idea, in that if you're not paranoid about losing your place, and are fairly sure of the speed at which each query is being processed (though there's no way of telling this), you could conceivably wander off somewhere else and drink a small coffee or look at all the lovely expensive things in John Lewis.

It's not perfect, but it's meant to be an improvement on the old queue system, and in some ways it almost is - the ticket told me that there were eleven people ahead of me, but it didn't seem like very long before my number was called. The new system also allows you to choose in advance what kind of service you require (counter services, travel services, etc.), presumably in an attempt to triage your needs & assign you to the right area ahead of time. It's a good idea, and it (subjectively) seemed to cut down on waiting time.

What was really, really frustrating about the experience was the ticketing machine itself. It's a red box with a screen which comes up to about waist height, and is maybe two metres inside the door. On the screen are a number of options, including Counter Services, Travel Services and Identity Services. There were two more, but I can't remember what they were.

Problem #1: nowhere inside the Post Office (or on the machine itself, or anywhere on the screen) was there a sign saying anything like, "We have a new ticketing system; you have to take a ticket now. This is the ticket machine." Maybe they had signs like that for the first few months, and I just don't go to the Post Office often enough. But you'd think there's be some kind of instruction. I consider myself a reasonably smart person, and it took me a good thirty seconds or so after walking into the building to realise that a) there was now a ticketing system in place and b) I had to take a ticket from the red machine in front of me. Demographically, I'm going to hypothesise that most people who go into the Post Office building itself are not people like me. People my age and with my familiarity with technology don't go to the Post Office unless they absolutely have to. I know I don't. And the people who do go to the Post Office are going to be, on the whole, older and less familiar with technology than I am. They're the kind of people who will often need detailed instructions for doing computer-related tasks which I do automatically, but there were no instructions at all in the Post Office, and I was stumped for a little while.

Problem #2: the little red machine's screen had five options, under headings like Counter Services and Identity Services. These five buttons, with their headings, were literally the only things on the screen. There was no help button, no information button, no further explanation of the different headings and what they encompassed. I wanted to renew my passport, so I took a ticket for Counter Services. Then I looked at the list again, and thought that passport renewals might actually fall under Identity Services. Passports are a form of identification, right? So I took a ticket for that as well, happy that the number of people ahead of me was much shorter for Identity Services than for Counter Services.

Then a Post Office worker came and stood next to the machine, where she was apparently supposed to be permanently stationed. She'd been distracted by helping someone else use the self-service stamp machine (which probably also has horrendous user experience issues). Not feeling particularly confident about the choice[s] of tickets I'd made, I said, "Passport renewals come under Identity Services, right?" The lady shook her head. "No," she said. "That's Counter Services." She went to get me a Counter Services ticket from the machine. I grinned, and brandished the first ticket I'd taken.

And then I kind of lost it a little tiny bit, and did something which I don't usually do in public. I tend to try not to become belligerent in these situations, as it rarely helps, but I decided to say something for once.

"You know, the machine could really do with making the distinction clearer," I said. "It's not easy to tell which option you need."

The Post Office lady gave me a patronising look.

"That's what I'm here for," she said contemptuously.

There were a lot of things I wanted to say at that point. A lot of things I wish I'd said, if I hadn't lost my nerve out of sheer surprise at the ludicrousness of the situation.

"But you weren't here; you were fannying around with the equally ill-designed stamp machine," springs to mind.

More than anything, I wish I'd called her out on her attitude. Not the patronising element, though that wasn't great customer service (a different rant for another day). The point I wish I'd made, and which has been haunting me ever since, is that she shouldn't need to stand there all day. If the user experience of the ticketing machine were even a little better, there would be no need to pay someone to stand next to it all day telling people how to use it. If it had a help screen, or an information screen, or an explanation of what all the different options mean - even if it had a little poster stuck to the front or the top of it outlining that Identity Services does not cover passport renewal - then my experience as a user would have been far better. I would not, for example, be ranting about it on the Internet. They could pay the lady to stand by the stamp machine instead, and patronise people over there.

The idea - the sheer idea - that the best workaround for an ill-designed user interface was to employ a human to show people how to use it is incredibly backwards. And I shouldn't be surprised or horrified really. This is, after all, the Post Office we're talking about. But I can't quite let it go.

I'm not saying that I expect world-class usability, though (for an interface which is going to be heavily used be people with much less technological familiarity than the average person who encounters any given UI) world-class usability wouldn't go amiss. Even average usability would have been a improvement. I work in the tech sector, I grew up using computers, and I was stumped by this piece of shit.

And I have no idea how we even begin to go about sorting it out. As long as people don't care about user design and usability, as long as it's not anyone's priority or budgeted for, as long as it's easier to pay a human to explain an interface than it is to pay a UX designer to make the interface better*, this problem is going to keep on popping up everywhere. And nowhere more than in places - like the Post Office - where usability couldn't be more important based on user demographic. It makes me very angry that things like this happen, and I don't have an easy suggestion for a fix. Just a lot of rage.

*This is analogous with the "give a man a fish" ad campaign that Oxfam used to run back in the 90s, though no one seems to have noticed yet.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Owning the balance we choose

This week, via the lovely Chris Atherton and this blog post, I came across David Sedaris' theory of four burners, as on a stove:

"One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The gist...[is] that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two."

It's an interesting model for taking stock of one's life and priorities, and the concept - that at least one and possibly more of what are traditionally considered the important areas of life will need to be neglected in order for a person to be successful - is a familiar one. Women aren't the only people who have been sold the dream of having it all; increasingly, the promise of modern life is one of plenty and abundance in all four of the areas Sedaris conceptualises as burners. We can have great careers, life-affirming friendships, the kind of family life we've always dreamed of and enjoy wonderful, glowing health throughout as we hurtle through the longest life expectancy of any human generation.

Screw that. Anyone who's tried to keep each of those plates spinning, or burners burning, can tell you quite plainly that it's not as simple as working hard enough at every individual aspect, or just wanting really badly for all of them to go in your favour. Balance can be achieved, but there's always a cost. And it's not always as dramatic as cutting off an entire burner, but, to have all four even close to perfect, a fair amount of compromise is needed in each. 

When I read of the burners theory, my first reaction was surprise. I'm happy with my life, and my initial thought was that this was because I'd managed to strike a good balance between the four burners.

Then I thought about it a little harder - not much harder at all, really, just for more than three seconds. And it dawned on me, like a cold and unwelcome sweat, that I could immediately and assuredly name which two burners I neglect so that the other two have a chance to flourish. I'm not going to name my two; that's not the point of this. But I knew, and I did not much like my answer, because it was heartless and narcissistic and unhesitatingly certain.

Luckily, I kept on thinking about it. And I don't think the situation is anywhere near as dire as I had begun to fear it was. The problem with the metaphor of the burners, useful as it is for a surface evaluation of priorities and as a way to conceptualise compromise, is that it's all-or-nothing, and doesn't really encompass the subtleties and nuances of the thing it sets out to describe. 

All of the options, when thought of in terms of being "cut off", are too extreme. They're an appeal to emotion - they conjure images of people whose health fails at the expense of everything else. People who have great friends, fulfilling careers and who are healthy, but who go home at night to an empty house. People who have loving families and who will live well into their eighties, but who have no friends and a dead-end menial job. Think about your burners, especially the one(s) you habitually neglect in favour of the others. Then imagine your future - yourself in twenty or thirty years - if you continue neglecting these aspects of your life. It's a frightening thought, isn't it? Ending up old and wealthy but utterly alone because you didn't invest enough time in friends and family when you were younger. Dying slowly of something preventable because you thought there would be plenty of time to eat better or quit smoking after your kids had left home and you'd retired. Not a single choice, in this game that each one of us is playing, looks like a winner. 

I don't think it's as bad as that, though. After spending some time moping about my own particular choices and priorities, and the miserable dotage I was afraid they were slowly dooming me to, I started to see the idea of the burners in a different light. I came back to my initial reaction - that I was happy, in total, with my life as it stood. That it felt as though I had the balance right, even though I could see clearly that my choices and actions in terms of these four life areas were anything but even-keeled. And it occurred to me that our balance - and with it our happiness - is what we make of it. 

There are even get-out-of-jail-free cards in this game; the great thing about thinking of these parts of your life as stove burners is that you can choose to lavish attention on a neglected part in the short term, or in the future, and make small steps towards evening out the balance. If even is you want. 

I'm happy with my life because what I make of it is what I choose to make. I felt heartless when I thought about the things I currently invest less into, because thinking about the concept of burners made me more aware of the unconscious choices I make, and when I became conscious of these choices, it seemed unconscionable that I should continue to make them. People who neglect x, or so I have been conditioned to believe, are not good people.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed as though working harder at the areas I was so ashamed of neglecting would begin to suffocate me. I may not give as much time or attention to them as I feel I ought to, or as I should in order to be evenly balanced, but I give them as much as I can, and the results feel comfortable and fit in well with the way I live my life.

There is no way to burn all four burners on full and end up with a good dinner. Balance - total balance - is elusive. It may not ever be attainable. What is attainable, though, is a balance that you, personally, feel happy with. That is what I have, and I refuse to be ashamed. If everyone's neglecting something, we may as well all own our neglect.

I'm not saying you should stop calling your mother entirely, or that you should skip work tomorrow and go to the movies, or that chain-smoking a pack of Bensons is the best way to spend your evening. But don't feel too guilty about what you think you ought to be doing - if you're happy with how you've struck your balance, things will almost certainly work out just fine.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why I secretly love commuting

Commuting is the scourge of the modern age, right? Even if you're lucky enough to have a job you don't hate going to every day, the commute to and from it is nothing but a pain in the ass. By car, by bus, by train, by foot, by ferry, by bike. It adds up. Unless you buy or rent a place that's right on the doorstep of your office, you're going to be spending some quality time every morning and evening with your own thoughts and as many as a thousand other humans (the average 1973-stock Piccadilly Line train has a maximum capacity of 1238 people), none of whom really want to be there.

Except me. I live exactly 3.5 miles away from my office, and I take the bus. This 3.5 mile journey takes around 40 minutes in the morning and usually longer in the evening, depending on how late the bus service is running and when I end up leaving the office. I've been doing this bus journey for about eight months now, and I thought I hated it. Thought I hated it to the extent that I spent a lot of time plotting how to buy a car with no money. Yes, that's a euphemism for stealing. Partly because I miss driving now that I no longer live in Plymouth. Partly because owning and financing an automobile would allow me tick off another item on the list entitled, 'Adulthood'. And partly because it would at least halve my travel time every day.

The one thing I thought the bus had going for it over and above driving was the fact that a bus journey, although it throws me into much closer contact than I'd like with forty-odd strangers (some of whom smell noticeably bad, or have a habit of talking to me even when I put up my "I want to pretend that this very public space is in fact intensely private" guard, or like to sit at the back of the bus rapping along to violent, angry music), gives me a good hour and a half of daily reading time. My last job, though I drove to and from it, included 70 minutes of mandatory breaks every day, which was when I got my reading done.

But reading time wasn't enough to sell the bus to me. I dreamt of being able to leave the office whenever I liked, getting into a car and going straight home. No more negotiating pedestrian crossings with traffic light patterns weighted heavily in favour of motorists. No more standing around for twenty minutes because the driver of the previous bus was too impatient to wait and the next one is late. Minimal exposure to inclement weather. Car ownership was the stuff of dreams.

Now, though, I'm not so sure. I had the tiniest of revelations on the walk to the bus stop after work last night. Like the road to Damascus, except a lot more urban, and I didn't have to change my name.

My commuting time is also my thinking time. A significant proportion of the ideas I have, good and bad - short stories, plot twists, character development, terrible puns, blog posts - occur to me during the time I spend travelling. The same thing happened when I drove to work at the beginning of last year. I was working on a series of poems with very tight meter, and most of the metrical improvements I made originally came to me while I was driving.

When I read on the bus, especially in the morning, I'm usually only half-reading (unless the book is particularly engrossing). I put the book down a lot to think. Commuting is just about the only time I'm truly alone with my thoughts. If I spend the evening alone, I'm usually jacked into my laptop with music on; any potential thought-space is crowded with verbal and aural information. The rest of my time involves at least some degree of social exchange, which (as anyone who saw the media fuss about introversion this week could tell you) is both rewarding and exhausting. The commute is the downtime that I need, and it's the time I spend thinking about everything beyond the details that preoccupy most of my day. If I had to describe the last five or six times I thought about big-picture stuff - the huge, pressing questions that used to entrance me for hours at a time when I was younger - I'd bet you decent money that I was somewhere between Mill Road and Milton Road, on a bus.

The cliché of people having their best ideas in the shower is not as silly as it sounds - showering, along with commuting, is one of the few everyday experiences which involves minimal social stimulus. And it's the time that's freest of social stimulus which is the most rewardingly ruminative.

The travel time that I wanted to slash in half with my very own Model T Ford is, it turns out, incredibly precious to me. It's when I do the wondering and reflecting that used to take up most of my thought-time as a child, but which has slowly been encroached upon by the massive shift in the way that I live now. I hated the two long bus journeys it took to get to secondary school, because at that point I had more than enough thinking time. I was constantly looking for ways to get outside of my own head. But now, although bus travel has become no less frustrating since I left school, it's also one of the few chances I have to do some proper thinking.

If you're anything like me, you probably think you hate your commute. It's the insulation on either side of the working day that cuts into your precious free time. But maybe - just maybe - it's also the best opportunity you have each day to do the thinking that gets marginalised by the rest of your life. And, for that reason, commuting perhaps deserves a better reputation than it has.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The best thing I read this week...

...had some stiff competition. I finished Consider the Lobster and read The Sense of an Ending, both of which have ended up pretty high on my "best things I have read so far this year" list. But the best thing I read this week was not fiction or literary non-fiction. It was a very short ebook by Andrew Lightheart which has the potential to be game-changing for me in a very important way.

Andrew's current focus can be found at, on the topic of difficult conversations and how to deal with them. I was intrigued by a blog post on the site which someone linked to from Twitter, and even more intrigued by the existence of the e-book - so much so that I did what I never do, and signed up to a newsletter. With my work email address and everything. I have a couple of dirty email addresses (mostly spam and newsletters, nothing important likely to come through them), one (my gmail) which is a balance of clean and dirty, and my work email, which I like to keep cleaner than clean (except in terms of language and content, of course). Any kind of syndicated email publication is anathemic to my own conception of clean email, so I tend to sign up for newsletters using one of my dirty email addresses and then never read them. But the blog posts I read over at A Peaceful Resolution looked interesting (and visually clean) enough that I didn't think the newsletter was going to annoy me, so I took the potentially-besmirching plunge and signed up with my work account.

My reward for doing so was the ebook which I have already mentioned, the BTIRTW of this post's title. Now, I imagine that a large part of A Peaceful Resolution's target audience is people who have just come to the realisation that they need to have a difficult conversation (defined as "any interaction that isn't totally straightforward", usually because there are a lot of emotions in play) and, worse, that they are desperately ill-equipped to do so. People with an acute case of difficult conversation syndrome who are looking for topical relief. When I came to the site, it was not as one of them. That's not to say that I never have difficult conversations. They crop up more often than I'd like, and usually when I'm least expecting them. And some important and necessary conversations are always going to be difficult. Therapy, for example, is one long difficult conversation. But (as is the case in terms of conflict resolution with other people as well as within the self) there are times when it's got to be had. No, I did not go to APR because I wanted the eponymous peaceful resolution for some specific conflict. I went there by accident, but when I did, it became clear that there was a lot of stuff worth sticking around for.

The first weekly email I got after signing up contained not merely discursion, but also a task. A simple task, but one which I hadn't done before. It outlined the concept of the emotional heatmap, with a four-stage scale encompassing green (emotional wellbeing & general good feeling), low amber (niggling anxiety & emotional discomfort), high amber (clenched, high-intensity negative feeling) and red (outright rage or grief), and theorised that most of us spend most of our time shuttling between the ambers - true green and true red are rare. The task was to spend the rest of the day mindful of the heatmap, and to take into account the shifts in feeling which occur during the day.

Think about how you felt on a particular day and you'll probably pick one static feeling which characterises the whole of that day for you. "On Monday I was really happy because I had a really nice date with x", or "Thursday was a total write-off; I couldn't concentrate at work and went home with a terrible headache." The most overwhelming of the emotions experienced on any one day seems to paint itself into the cracks of time and colour entire days, but, from hour to hour and minute to minute, the reality of human experience is not that clear-cut. I had some idea that this was the case, but didn't realise the full extent of it until I tried thinking about how I was feeling in terms of the emotional heatmap. It turned out, on the day I tried it, that I was all over the place - from solidly in the green to right up at the top of high amber, not-sure-I-can-keep-this-in-check style emotional intensity. Admittedly, it was an outlier of a day because of all kinds of non-typical stuff I had going on. But if I hadn't been bearing the heatmap in mind, and you'd asked me today how Monday had gone, I would probably have said that it was mostly terrible but got slightly better towards the end. Which, based on what being mindful of how I was feeling brought to light, would not even begin to cover all of the places my feelings were going over the course of one afternoon.*

Already, I was impressed with APR - I'd received an email newsletter which didn't annoy me at all in terms of formatting or tone, and which had contained a task that I found both fascinating and useful. Double win. And then I read the ebook I'd received upon signing up for the newsletter. It was incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

The ebook, Stop the Dread!, is an 11-step pointer in the direction of difficult conversations. It lays the groundwork which needs to be done before having the conversation itself. All 11 tips are interesting, and some are truly inspired. The best and simplest deal with the kinds of cognitive biases which affect the way we think every day - things like trying to predict how the other person in the conversation is going to react, or being sure of what they think, when really we can't know anything beyond what we can perceive and what they tell us. And the reminder that what you do and what you say is in your control, but, beyond that, not a lot else is - you can't control what the other person does or says or thinks, or how they react. It's really simple stuff, but it's stuff that I have an enormous tendency to forget, especially when emotion triumphs reason (as it so often does in highly-charged situations).

I'm not a big believer in self-help or personal change, especially not through a weekly email digest or thought for the week format. I'm too much of a cynic to believe that the majority of these self-help- and business help-style newsletters are doing anything more than making money and paying lip service to common sense. The stuff being covered on APR should be common sense, but so often, in the heat of the moment, it isn't. We all lose sight of things, lose sight of ourselves and our control and our reason when we're wound up about or wounded by something. Stop the Dread! is simple, effective mindfulness at its very best; the stuff it contains can be applied to any difficult conversation, conflict or interaction, from medicine to workplace to romance. I recommend you sign up to the newsletter and read the ebook right now. Go on. It's awesome.

*Side note: this is the problem I have with every kind of mood-tracking software/app that I've tried - none of them go into enough detail, either in terms of timeframe or in terms of emotional intensity. A graph which is minute-by-minute on the x-axis and able to be distinct and precise into the thousands on the y-axis would be perfect (scale of 1-10 doesn't quite cut it), but the stuff that's around at the moment is too blunt to capture that kind of data.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Brief Note on the Tesco Scandal

By the looks of things, the Tesco scandal has come to a conclusion. Sort of. In that Tesco have come out and suggested that the DWP perhaps shouldn't mandate unpaid "work experience" with the threat of cutting off benefits to the non-compliant. They have not (as Sainsbury's, Waterstone's and TK Maxx have) stated that they will no longer support the scheme, so it's not exactly a win. In fact, none of this is a win. Whoever was responsible for the decision on behalf of any of those major retailers (and countless more) to participate in the scheme in the first place clearly did not foresee "major PR nightmare" as one of the potential consequences, or else they wouldn't have agreed to do it. And, of course, it shouldn't be the PR nightmare that worries them - it should, perhaps, be the fact that they willingly participated in state-sanctioned (nay, encouraged) slave-labour*. But that is not, of course, their biggest concern.

Would Tesco have urged the DWP to reconsider the manner in which this "work experience" is mandated were it not for the fact that they ended up on the wrong side of a vitriolic public backlash when the details of their involvement in the scheme became widely-known? Call me cynical, but it seems very unlikely that they would.

Gestures, like TK Maxx ending their participation, or Tesco calling for changes to the way the scheme is carried out, may be conciliatory. But they shouldn't be enough to make us forgive and forget. The jobseekers who were and are forced to work in this way don't have the luxury of voting with their wallets, but I do, and so do you.

Forced labour is forced labour, whether it's in a North Korean detention camp or in your local supermarket. And it shouldn't take public outcry to make big business finally able to tell right from wrong.

The only good to come out of this is further proof that social media, historic home of cat videos and being able to slag off people you don't like facelessly and without recrimination, is an excellent medium for slagging off big faceless corporations without recrimination when they do things you don't like. It's a fine expression of democracy, and I'm glad it works.

*I realise that the "workers" on these "work experience" schemes were receiving Jobseeker's Allowance in exchange for their work. I do not consider this to be payment, nor do I believe that JSA should be given by the state in exchange for anything other than a willingness on the part of the individual to do as much as they can to find work (short of enforced, unpaid work experience).

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Try this one cool tip for eternal youth dreamt up by someone's mother somewhere

You've all seen the kind of adverts I mean. The poorly-executed, poorly-designed scam ads which are plastered over certain websites, bearing horribly-written slogans ("one trick of a tiny belly") that anyone with a basic command of grammar can barely parse. Or the ones which show screenshots ripping off the BBC/NBC/Fox logos, to give the gravitas of television news to whatever confidence trick it is they're advertising. The ones which claim that a British mother has invented a formula for everlasting youth. They're close kin to the most recent round of Twitter spam, the direct messages with a link, saying something like, "hey, I can't believe the nasty things that someone is saying about you on this blog." They're stupid and badly-done, so badly-done that you almost can't believe anyone falls for them, and they're probably best ignored. However, I believe that this family of adverts aims itself primarily at women, and for that reason I find them particularly odious and offensive.

The crudely-drawn shrinking figure in the "tiny belly" ads, for example, is always a woman. It's always someone's mother who has discovered a snake oil to rid you of wrinkles. And the 'products' they're pushing - acai berries, and goodness knows what other awful crap - are usually related to weight loss and beauty, two areas of both traditional and non-traditional advertising where women = goldmine.

The problem with these ads is not simply that they prey on vanity. Almost all advertising is intended to exploit a combination of vanity, envy and self-loathing; I've just about made my peace with that fact (although I still think it's a toxic cocktail to feed for multiple hours on a daily basis to everyone who has senses). The fact that many people can tune all advertising out reasonably well isn't a mitigating factor or excuse. What bothers me about these adverts in particular is the specific type of (mostly female) vanity they are intended to prey on. They work on the basis that all women with money to spend want to look younger or be thinner (or in the case of the "someone said a terrible thing about you" spam tweets, the idea that people are being mean about you behind your back, which is not so much vanity as insecurity, or, as previously mentioned, self-loathing), or some other similarly ubiquitous and reductive generalisation of femininity. There's also the implicit competitive element - "person x has discovered secret x and won't share it with anyone but us, and we'll sell it to you but only if you get a move on" - which is equally unsavoury, in that it encourages individuals in the target audience (women) to regard the rest of the target audience (other women) with suspicion and fear, in case the other women get to the magical slenderising/anti-aging treatment first.

And, of course, it perpetuates the notion that beauty and the ideal body and being worthy of love and respect are all concepts which are in finite and severely limited supply, which is just as much bullshit as the rest of this pernicious trash.

Look past the poor execution and hideous copy for a second. The fundamental message of all of these adverts is - like so much of Western advertising, but vastly less subtle - "you're not good enough, and you hate yourself because you're not good enough, and you hate yourself enough to pay money to make yourself more acceptable to our pre-determined standards, which were decided upon without your consultation." The ads are spectacularly brainless, which makes them easy to disdain or ignore out of hand. But they've bothered me for years, and it wasn't until I began to articulate this irritation that I realised how deep it went, or why I felt it.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but hear me out anyway: ladies, you are good enough. And dudes, you're good enough too. Everyone is fine, and no one should have to pay £6 to look twenty years younger, or whatever drivel it is they're peddling. No one should feel as though they have to look twenty years younger at all, but that's not a very popular opinion in advertising/media/fashion/cosmetics/plastic surgery circles, and I can't see it gaining any more traction any time soon.

The problems I have with this specific subsection of ads are inextricably bound to the problems I have with advertising, particularly when targeted at women, in general. I think it's a battle worth fighting in its entirety, and I've picked these specific examples as both an easy target and as an incidence which is particularly stupid and offensive. There's an inherent dishonesty and subterfuge in all of it, especially these: a little voice whispering in the ear which says, "you can be what you are not and should not be. You can be young when you're old and skinny when you're fat, and the only cost is money." And that's true of a lot of advertising, but nowhere is it more unashamedly open about this than in these particular ads.

I don't know when advertising changed from "buy x" to "buy x because it is better than y for these reasons" to "buy x because it is the only thing that will make you an acceptable human being." I'm not sure it was as linear as that - there are hints of lifestyle-aspiration even in pre-Bernays Victorian advertising - but the progression has been made, and carefully-engineered self-loathing is the lot this century's ordinary (and even extraordinary, for none of us can escape it) men and women are dealt.

In twenty years, I'd like adverts which rely on women (, people) feeling bad about themselves to be as utterly and universally reviled as those from decades past which sold cigarettes by making smoking look cool. Failing that, I'd like some adverts intended to make women competitive and jealous about wanting to be the best lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs and developers and writers and artists and scientists and WOMEN as they can be, and not just about being pretty and youthful and thin. That would be awesome.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Veganuary: A Retrospective

From 00.00 on the 1st of January to 00.00 on the 1st of February, I attempted to be vegan.

There are three instances in which I believe I may have eaten something that came from an animal, which I will list here:

 - I ate a spoonful of some tomato soup which looked clear (and thus milk/cream-free) but, upon tasting, might have contained dairy. I did not eat the rest of the soup.
 - I ate three black olives which may have been contaminated with tzatziki. I did this because a) it was not clear whether or not they had been and b) I have no self-control when it comes to olives.
 - I ate a crisp which turned out to have "cheddar" in the name. My excuses for this are that it was 8pm, I'd been drinking heavily and I hadn't eaten anything that day.

These transgressions aren't groundbreakingly interesting, but they do illustrate my general attitude to the whole thing: I was as cautious as it was possible to be within reason, and thought a hell of a lot more about what I ate than I usually do, but I wasn't prepared to beat myself up over a mouthful of soup or three olives or whatever.

As an experiment, it was interesting. I did not experience the utter, blissful absence of disease, malaise and ill-feeling which the more vocal of the veganazis promise (I guess that's because I haven't given it long enough for all of those pernicious dairy-based toxins to leave my system, right?), but then, neither did I expect to. I wasn't at all ill in the last month, although that's not a great indicator of dietary benefit; I have a pretty tough immune system, and it would be normal in any given month for me to have been healthy throughout. Without going into detail, my digestion was different but no worse or better than usual. I was a little hungrier than usual in spite of eating a decent quantity of food. 

In terms of negative health effects, it's hard to say - so many variables act on the human body on a daily basis that it's impossible to point to anything that I experienced this month and think, "yep, that was definitely a result of veganism." I had some minor sleep and mood disturbances in the first half of the month - very minor - and it doesn't seem likely that these correlate to cheese (it was also January, which suggests itself as a stronger correlative). My skin was a little drier than usual, but that could be atmospheric, or based on spending Christmas in a soft water area and then coming back to a hard water area.

It would have been interesting to have had some kind of blood work done immediately before and immediately after the month, but it seemed impractical to do so. I gave blood during the month and didn't show any signs of anaemia; the donation went well.

I felt pretty good, but I felt pretty good in November and December, too.

I cooked some interesting stuff that I probably wouldn't have made before, as well as some modified versions of old favourites, and in general used more fresh ingredients and spent longer cooking. Houmous became a catch-all savoury dairy replacement. Burritos with cheese and sour cream became burritos with houmous. The cheese-blanket which had of late covered most of my self-cooked meals was generally replaced with a dollop of houmous. It satisfies something creamy and salty and primordial. The lazy dinner option became straight carbs rather than carbs-with-cheese; I don't think this is much healthier objectively, but it might be. I feel much happier cooking with fresh tofu than I did before, which is awesome. I'd always wanted the knack. Lunch at work was nowhere near as boring as I'd feared - with some vegetable-and-salad wizardry and a lot of sweet chilli dressing, I made interesting and delicious lunches every day. My fruit and vegetable consumption - previously already reasonable - skyrocketed.

On the ethics front, it was a reflective period. I'd been vaguely troubled by certain aspects of commercial dairy farming, and was wondering if this month would push me into the "I definitely want to be vegan full-time" category.

The short answer is, "it didn't."

Veganism, to me, is much more of a grey area than vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is easier to make black and white, even if people have a tendency to take the term and do as they will with it (I'm looking at the pescetarians who don't call themselves that here). As a vegetarian, I did not and do not eat anything which was ever alive in an animal sense. Even fish, whose plight and murder does not inspire any immediate visceral feelings in me. Even tasty, tasty bivalves. Now, there were still some ethical quandries inherent in this lifestyle - I believe, for example, that nothing living should have to die so that I can eat it. But I kill insects with something akin to insecticidal glee, simply because I hate bugs and find them weird and gross, and don't want them all up in my personal space. And then there are the lesser-or-greater degrees, like gelatine (I tend to avoid it but am not as troubled if I find I've eaten it by accident than I would be if I'd accidentally eaten meat) or isinglass used in the production of booze.

Veganism is even less clear-cut. On the surface, the simple, "no dairy or eggs" doesn't sound like an ethical problem area. But most of the vegans I know do it to different degrees, or have different exceptions. Some will eat honey, because bee-keeping might actually be helping the bees. Some have no problem buying woollen products (just like some vegetarians will buy leather), others will drink regular wine and beer, or will drink or eat something that they don't know isn't vegan until they find out that it is, or will make exceptions for things which are advertised as containing trace amounts of something non-vegan. 

In terms of strictness, it goes much deeper than this. I delved into the world of vegan bloggers, and found those who are strictly raw, and people who won't eat tofu or soy products because they disagree with the way soy is farmed, or who will only eat certain types of sugar - all kinds of other distinctions beyond the simple "I don't eat eggs or dairy" which marks where the popular conception of veganism begins and ends.

The thing that really troubled me about this blog scene (and there were a lot of things which troubled me) was that each more stringent definition seemed to be pursued in an attempt either a) to detoxify the human body entirely from what seem to be mostly imagined 'toxins' and/or b) to be the most virtuous person who ever lived. 

I don't know what it is about food that makes people attach emotion to it. It's something which I try to avoid doing, and it gently angers me every time I overhear someone at lunch talking about "good" or "bad" or "naughty" (that one really gets me) food. Food has no inherent emotional load or value. There isn't an objective scale, with deep-fried dime bar cake at one end and iceberg lettuce at the other, which demonstrates the value of food. It's food. Take it for all in all. Even if all of the pie slices are bright red on the Sainsbury's package. Maybe you shouldn't eat exclusively that thing, but you probably shouldn't eat any one thing exclusively anyway. 

From a very brief foray, it seems that the emotional loading of food is rife within the vegan (and especially the raw/foodblogging) community. On both an ethical and a health level. There are a lot of people who are searching for the most ultimately sanctimonious way of eating - the thing that is the absolute best for their bodies (rarely backed up by decent nutritional science or historical evidence that most humans can eat meat and fish and dairy and not suffer from ill effects), and which has the least impact on the lives of other creatures and on the world around them. 

I'm all for low-impact food, but not when it becomes the sole focus of one's life. It's a fact of the modern world that mass importing/transportation/farming processes aren't always great for the environment, but also that most of us are so damn busy all the time that it's impossible to live the best of all possible lives, food-wise. We balance the two. We do as much as we can to reduce our impact whilst still getting up and going to work every morning and having a good time. And the puritanical aspect of some of the culinary extremism that can be witnessed on these very interwebs is indicative of a mentality which wants to take every drop of joy out of food and eating. Orthorexia may not be medically recognised, but it's an interesting framework through which to view this effect.

At times, the militance becomes dangerous. I saw at least three examples of people who claimed to manage their cancer/other serious or terminal illness entirely through a vegan/raw diet. It's dangerous both for them and for the people they influence. Touting any dietary changes as some kind of miracle cure for disease - as a cure for the absolute fact of mortality, almost - is irresponsible and should not be encouraged. And yet I didn't see many voices of dissent within those communities. Possibly because the dissenters are all people like me: fans of modern medicine who are angered too much by the concept of a diet curing cancer to stay around long enough to comment. One of the most powerful lessons the Internet has taught us is that you can't engage people in meaningful debate if they don't want to engage, even if you're pretty sure you're right. 

As well as delving into the world of vegan blogging, I also got up to speed with the ex-vegan community, which is pretty interesting itself. It's made up of people who were formerly notable vegan/raw bloggers who decided not to remain vegan and went public about this decision, often because their diets were having a deleterious effect on their health. The response from the hard-line vegans was often outrageous - one woman was told that she and her family deserved to be killed like the animals they had gone back to eating. The response was much stronger than the complaints these hardcore vegans levied against people who had always eaten meat and never been vegan, most likely because of the sense of betrayal invoked by a high-profile vegan publicly going back to meat-eating. Which brings us, once again, to the emotional loading of food and lifestyle.

At heart, what I do and don't feel comfortable eating boils down to the level of cognitive dissonance which I'm happy experiencing. Everyone is walking around with a head full of the stuff - it's how we're not all constantly curled up in the foetal position, unable to comprehend the cruelty of the world. And I'm reasonably sure that this is also how other people decide what they will and won't eat. The level of cognitive dissonance which someone like Sali Owen can process is very different to the level experienced by someone who eats everything - and that's fine. I'd spent the last couple of years wondering if I'd continue to be able to justify (to myself) eating animal products which don't result in the death of the animal. And it turns out that I can.

On a conscious level, I'm concerned about the ethics of dairy farming. I think there are many things wrong with the way we mass-produce food in general, particularly when it's harmful to the welfare of sentient creatures, and to that end I've tried for many years to be as conscious of this as I can when choosing what dairy I do eat (the freest of the free-range eggs, and the like). I drink mostly soy milk, partly because I prefer the taste and partly because I know that it didn't cause distress or discomfort to any cows. But I don't find that I care enough about it to avoid dairy altogether. Objectively, the suffering of animals in dairy production is as distasteful to me as the thought of eating their flesh; on a day-to-day basis, and especially when it's cooked into something pre-produced, or when it's in work, or when it's a trace of milk powder (unnecessary but ubiquitous) in something like tortilla chips, I can't bring myself to care enough to stop eating these things.

It's now the 3rd of February, and I still haven't broken veganism and probably won't until we go to Meat Liquor tomorrow, when I intend to cram large amounts of halloumi into my face. Veganuary was a fascinating experiment, but I don't have the desire or commitment to be entirely vegan all of the time. The current plan is to eat almost exclusively vegan at home and at work (with occasional exceptions), and to be vegan where possible but more likely lacto-ovo vegetarian when I'm eating out. So veg*n, with a tendency towards the vegan end of the spectrum. This is a level of cognitive dissonance I'm content with.