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Summer solstice

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, today is the summer solstice.

I’ve read a lot over the last year about the mental health benefits of rituals—and how, for atheists like me, celebrating the passing of the year through equinoxes and solstices brings psychological benefits. For years now, I’ve marked the vernal equinox by balancing an egg on end. I dare say you’re sick of reading about it.

But I haven’t a ritual to mark the summer solstice, and I thought that, perhaps, I ought to institute one. Given the astronomical event the solstice marks, I initially imagined that I could simply make a habit of watching the sun rise and set. I knocked that idea on the head when I realised quite how early the sun rises at this time of year: I’m not making a pre-5am start an annual event.

Reading about solstice traditions revealed a whole load of water-based activities, including swimming on the day of the solstice, visiting the coast, or visiting a waterfall. I already swim regularly—indeed, I’m publishing this as I’m getting ready to head to the pool—so that doesn’t seem like a special activity. Making a habit of visiting a waterfall or the coast feels like making myself a hostage to fortune: it’s just not always going to be possible.

Many people mark the solstice by leaping over bonfires, but this seems a surefire way to end up in A&E. I’m not a man built for leaping.

And so: I have no good answer. I’ll just have to keep mulling it over for next year.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous.

I don’t mind

On The Imperfectionist last week, Oliver Burkeman wrote:

If there’s one error of thought that most reliably holds me back from living an absorbing and meaningfully productive life, it’s the idea that certain things really matter, when the truth is that they don’t matter at all. Or at least nowhere near as much as I seem to believe.

This feels a bit thematically connected to my post yesterday about buying a ‘good enough’ fridge-freezer, but Burkeman’s post made me reflect more on understanding what matters in a professional context.

In my professional role, as is the case for most professionals, I’m asked to make hundreds of decisions per day. Most of them, however they may seem to the person who is asking, are pretty insignificant: whatever decision is made will have little impact on the public’s health.

A few years ago, I got into the habit of occasionally saying that ‘I didn’t care’ which option was chosen, often explaining that I didn’t think it would particularly influence the ultimate outcome. A typical example that comes to mind was whether a letter, whose content had been agreed upon by a group, should have my signature or someone else’s appended to the bottom.

One day, a kind colleague gently corrected me, saying that I did care, I just didn’t mind.

It was one of those useful small correctives that revealed to me the potential impact of the casual language I had habitually employed. It forced me to reflect and change my language.

The situation also made me reflect on the skill, wisdom, and kindness of the colleague who gave me that nudge. I hope that I one day have enough of the same qualities to help others.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

Good enough

Wendy and I recently needed to replace our fridge-freezer. Usually, this would have sent me down a rabbit hole of researching, reading reviews, comparing prices, and finding the very best fridge-freezer for our specific needs.

This time, it didn’t: we picked one fairly arbitrarily. We knew the size we required, we knew the colour we wanted, we knew we wanted it to be energy efficient, and we knew we wanted it conveniently delivered. The whole exercise, from deciding we needed a new fridge-freezer to receiving an order confirmation email, took less than half an hour.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but Callum Booth’s latest post reflecting on his similar experience of buying earplugs caused me to reflect a little further.

It often feels like life involves countless decisions, most of which count for little. I have no doubt that we could have found a slightly cheaper model, or one that was better in one way or another. But sometimes, ‘good enough’ is good enough, and indeed preferable to a better outcome that takes longer to reach.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3. It looks nothing like our kitchen, but then, wouldn’t it have been far more disturbing if it did?

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

A goose on a management course

Oliver Burkeman shared the following riddle—which was new to me—in the latest edition of his newsletter, The Imperfectionist:

Imagine you’ve come into possession of a live goose, trapped in a large glass bottle. (Don’t ask how or why.) The animal has plenty of room in the bottle, and air to breathe, but the neck of the bottle is much too narrow for the goose to pass through. Your job is to remove the goose from the bottle without harming it, and without breaking any glass.

Perhaps you’ll laugh this off as obviously impossible. Or narrow your eyes and furrow your brow, as you try to figure out what you’re missing. In fact, the problem is neither impossible nor difficult. It’s easy. First, imagine the goose is outside the bottle.

Actually, there are no further steps. That’s it. You did it!

I know, I know: incredibly annoying. But I think the goose-in-the-bottle scenario encapsulates a crucial and liberating lesson about the way that a certain kind of person – me, and maybe you too – tends to overcomplicate things, when it comes to meaningful productivity or psychological growth.

A couple of weeks ago, I bumped into a friend who reminded me of a management and leadership course we took together twelve years ago. It was memorable because our impressions of the course were polar opposites: she had loved it, and I… hadn’t.

We spent a painful half-hour on that course working through an exercise sorting playing cards into a specific order in the fastest possible time. The ‘trick’ we were supposed to realise at some point during the exercise is that no-one instructed us to shuffle the cards between rounds, and so once we had sorted them, we could complete the next round of the ‘task’ instantly.1

This was a long-winded, activity-based attempt to make the same point as the goose-in-the-bottle: We sometimes impose our own unstated, unquestioned rules, which can make life more difficult than it needs to be. We ought to be open-minded and actively question our assumptions.

The ‘goose-in-the-bottle’ allegory made me see this point entirely: it felt like a bit of an epiphany. The exercise with the playing cards left me mostly annoyed, and only with a background awareness of the point it was trying to make. Yet, I suspect for many people, including my friend, the opposite would be true: they’d find the goose-in-the-bottle annoying and the playing cards illuminating.

I’m occasionally guilty of inwardly rolling my eyes when people say things like ‘I’m a visual learner’—after all, we all learn in lots of different ways all the time. And yet, this example showed me the power of how different techniques can connect more directly with different people, and how getting the message across powerfully can depend on picking the right one.

  1. In fact, in an illustration of why I did not enjoy this course, the tutor did, in fact, tell me that I had to shuffle the cards between rounds when I attempted this ‘trick’ too early in the exercise, completely undermining the point of the activity.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

The hazards of changing a battery

Yesterday, I changed the battery in one of the office clocks. I am the person in the office with the lowest tolerance for stopped clocks, so this job often falls to me.

When I removed the AA battery, I was surprised by how light it was. On further inspection, it turns out that it’s a carbon-zinc battery. I don’t recall seeing one of those before. The displayed manufacturing date is February 2004, so someone must have found it in the back of a cupboard: I’m not sure my current employer bought it!

Wikipedia tells me that ‘zinc-carbon batteries today have been mostly replaced by the more efficient and safe alkaline batteries’, which raised some questions. ‘Alkaline batteries offer up to eight times the battery life of zinc-carbon batteries’: so why not use them in the bloody clocks and save me up to seven jobs?

Anyway, I found the brand’s website. I perused the ‘frequently asked questions’ section. In response to ‘How should I dispose of carbon zinc batteries?’, they offer ‘It’s safe to drop them right in the household trash.’

The battery has the crossed-out wheelie-bin symbol right there on it. Batteries shouldn’t be dropped into the household trash. Not only is there a high risk of causing fires, but, in many places, they’re classified as hazardous waste.

So next time you’re browsing the battery aisle and wondering whether to choose an Eveready / Energizer product, remember that they choose to encourage their customers to dispose of products irresponsibly. Consider whether that’s an approach which really has your best interests at heart. Then, make whatever choice you feel comfortable with.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous.

The price of flour

Here’s a question: what’s the price of the cheapest 500g bag of plain flour at your local supermarket? Here’s what I found:

Retailer Price
M&S 45p
Sainsbury’s 45p
Waitrose 50p
Morrisons 55p
Asda £1.30

That might not be as you’d expect: it’s not what I expected. I popped into Asda with the intention of buying a 500g bag of flour, and after seeing the price, walked over to M&S. I was so disbelieving of the price that I confirmed it later on the Asda website.

In fairness, Asda does sell much bigger bags of flour in a range starting from 70p, but I didn’t want a big bag. I am surprised that their premium for a small bag is so disproportionately high.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous.

I’m loath to loathe

In the Microsoft Teams chat at work yesterday, I had cause to describe a task as loathsome. Typing this word caused a shuddering realisation, one that probably dawned on you many years ago: ‘loath’ and ‘loathe’ are really quite similar words. Many websites tell me that these two words are commonly confused, yet I’ve never noticed the similarity.

I ‘loathe’ (rhymes with ‘clothe’) really horrible tasks: I hate them, feel repulsion from them. I’m not willing to do things I loathe.

Things that are ‘loathsome’ cause me to hate them… such as really horrible tasks. It’s just ‘loathe’ plus ‘some’ to make an adjective.

On the other hand, I’m ‘loath’ (rhymes with ‘both’) to do things that I dislike: I’m reluctant, somewhat averse. I’d prefer not to, but I will if I have to. ‘For fairer, for loather’ used to be a line in marriage vows—which perhaps demonstrates how different ‘loath’ is from ‘loathe’. You’d hope nobody would consider their partner loathsome at their wedding.

How did we end up in this linguistic quagmire, where the adjective ‘loath’ means something quite different to the verb ‘loathe’? Quick, let’s crack open the Oxford English Dictionary.

Unsatisfyingly, any explanation is lost to history. The divergence in meaning probably happened 1,000 years ago or so. ‘Loathsome’ came into the picture in the 1300s, which suggests that the divergence had occurred by then, as something wouldn’t need to be described as loathsome if it could just be described as loath.

Apparently, ‘loathe’ is more than twice as common in modern written English as ‘loath’, which—given the more robust sense of negativity—strikes me as a sad indictment of our times. But I can hardly complain about that when my own use of ‘loathsome’ started me down this track.

So, let me defend myself. In the two-decade-, 3,000-post history of this blog, I’ve used the word ‘loath’ twice: I was loath to read a book about the pandemic and loath to criticise those who claimed that King Charles’s approach to monarchy was reflected in his haircut

Yet, there’s only one thing I’ve ‘loathed’: I really had it in for the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Hmm.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

Free coffee conundrum

Eleven years ago, I wrote a post about coffee shop loyalty schemes, and the way that they deviate from the psychological evidence base.

The thing that links all of the common schemes is they are effectively fixed ratio reinforcement schedules. That is, they entice customers to buy more coffee by promising a freebie every X visits. But a wealth of literature from psychology reveals that this isn’t really very effective in getting people to form habits, not least because their motivation to consume drops off immediately after claiming free coffee Y.

A far more effective method of getting people to establish habits is to build a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. As with gambling, this means that the punter / customer never knows when the win / free product is going to materialise. This keeps motivation consistently high.

In practice, what I’m suggesting is that the ratio of visits to free coffees is kept the same (X+1:1), but that the free coffees are dispensed at random.

I still think about this a lot. Eleven years ago, most coffee shops used paper stamp cards, which didn’t really lend themselves to this sort of thing. I proposed using scratch cards as an alternative.

These days, these schemes use apps, so the switch should be much simpler. Indeed, some coffee shops use variable ratio reinforcement within the apps for special promotions: Caffè Nero’s app sometimes has a fairground spinner, and it has crackers at Christmas—both operate on the variable ratio reinforcement principle. I see no good technical reason why the randomised approach couldn’t be used for the core loyalty scheme.

And yet, the fixed ratio ‘stamp card’ approach is ubiquitous. Costa, which had a different system when I wrote that post, has come into line. Even M&S has a version now.

I don’t doubt that there’s a good reason for the lack of adoption of a variable ratio approach, but I’m not sure what it is: I struggle to imagine that large corporations are squeamish about using gambling-like mechanics to increase sales, so I expect that it’s to do with effectiveness. I’d love to see a trial, not least as it might help illuminate the limits of effectiveness of variable ratio approaches.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous.

Dispelling misspellings

There’s a poster I pass at work regularly about identifying phishing emails. It advises that the content of these emails is frequently ‘mispelled’. I’ve spent more time than I ought pondering whether that misspelling was intentional or not, likely a slightly-less-obvious version of telling us that emails might be full of ‘seplling mystakes’.

Then, I doubted myself and wondered if ‘mispell’ was an acceptable alternative to ‘misspell’. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary: it’s not. There’s no historical context in which it is correct—the etymology is plainly ‘mis’ + ‘spell’. The inclusion of a lonely ‘s’ is simply wrong, whether or not it’s intentionally wrong.

The Dictionary does list a single quotation in which the word appears as ‘mispelling’: England’s 1695 Treason Act. Section XI of the Act provides, among other things, that misspellings in legal documents cannot be used as the sole grounds for dismissing a case unless highlighted before any evidence has been presented (in which case, they could be corrected and the trial could proceed). Amusingly, ‘misspelling’ is misspelt:

noe Indictment for any of the aforesaid … shall bee quashed on the Motion of the Prisoner or his Counsel for miswriting mispelling false or improper Latine

This section of the Act was repealed with the passage of the Treason Act 1945, so you needn’t worry about the misspelling of misspelling still being in force. Unlike the poster, we can, at least, assume the 1695 mistake wasn’t a deliberate pun.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

The luxury of time

Trung Phan wrote about the luxury brand Hermès last weekend.

I wasn’t delighted by Phan’s dated and unnecessary gender-jibes about ‘steering’ his wife away from Hermès stores—in our household, it’s me who buys the occasional Hermès item.

I was, however, struck by this particular item in the list regarding what makes a specific type of Hermés handbag a coveted luxury product:

The training to become an Hermès bag maker takes a minimum of two years (often up to 5 years) and the company only trains 200 people per year. Each Birkin bag is made entirely by hand and takes 20-25 hours to make.

It strikes me how unremarkable that is. Many professions require years of background training, and individual jobs often take 25 hours or more, from writing a report to fitting a kitchen. We don’t necessarily regard the outputs as luxuries, and certainly nowhere near as luxurious (or costly) as an Hermés handbag. Perhaps we should.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

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