Rumination 71: Tree Lines

During a weekend dinner at my in-laws’ place, I briefly left to take containers of leftovers home—as is the custom—around the corner before returning for dessert. After placing things in the fridge, locking my door, walking down the driveway and crossing the road, I strolled over to the street corner to start climbing the hill back to their house. As I looked up, I saw this and stopped.

From where I was standing, the power pole and lines stood perfectly in front of a taller eucalyptus tree across the road, however the tree appeared to be dwarfed by the pole. I stood and stared at this scene of visual overload.

This moment captures a thought that I often have as I go for lunchtime walks through our suburb (still working from home): the strange balance of power that we humans hold in our built environment and the way that we regard our own creations to be greater than nature’s. We think of our technology as being elegant and ingeniously interconnected but compared to the natural environment, it is messy, clunky and destructive. The ‘cloud’ that we imagine is actually energy-intensive and mechanical, rather than the invisible phenomenon that we imagine holding all of our photos. The processes of the tree behind this pole and all of the matter and animals that surround it—indeed, real clouds too—are subtle, gradual and purposeful. We barely perceive the wonderful non-human ecology that sustains us and everything else on the planet. The best that we can do in taking notice is capture it in quantified weather reports and wonder whether it will ruin our weekend get-together.

I watch people buzzing around every day as I venture out, whether they’re speeding down the street in their cars, walking dogs with faces in their phones or staring at their feet as they amble along, wearing earphones that blast music. They rarely stop to look around at the environment that they take for granted. Tall trees tower above suburban houses in isolated parks, preserved only in small patches because they line a waterway that needs to exist to avoid flooding elsewhere in the area. With that gone, developers would surely be in there in a heartbeat. Everything else is paved or set aside only to be a mowed lawn. Competing in height are the power lines, which while not as crucial as the oxygen-supplying trees that dot the well-established suburb, do provide the crucial energy that keeps the aforementioned human activity going.

We clear trees to make space for the erection of uglier trees that are made out of the dead trees that we cleared. I often walk through my suburb and ponder what it looked like before it was developed and even before it was farmland. The place where I sleep every night—what did it look like when it was just bush for thousands, millions, billions of years? Who or what was here before I was? Yet I can’t help but feel that people, when they do take notice of such things, are more impressed by the ugliness and interconnectedness of what humans create, rather than the ecology of what they destroyed. They don’t contemplate the age of what surrounds them. They struggle to comprehend a time before their own birth.

Every day, I take my lunchtime walks through nearby parks not only for a sense of fitness, but to remove myself from technology (to a degree, with the occasional podcast) and surround myself with a more natural environment that’s separate from human hubris… even if it is an enclave within a suburban sprawl.

This post says hardly anything new about humanity’s relationship with nature; I write this to encourage others to take notice of what is around them.

Rumination 70: From an [INSERT HERE] Perspective

More and more these days, I hear people using a very specific kind of phrase as they begin to offer their own opinion or take on an issue. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is what I am now dubbing the ‘perspective-driven dependent clause’. The examples below are just some of the vague, perspective-driven dependent clauses that I have heard uttered by real people online and in person.

From a tech perspective…

From a stakeholder perspective…

From a learning perspective…

From a user-experience perspective…

From a global perspective…

From a timing perspective…

What do these actually mean? Of course, I’ve only included a select few in the list; you could replace any of the modifiers before ‘perspective’ with another word to create your own version.

From a linguistic perspective, it is useless to rail against changes in communication. New expressions, definitions, pronunciations and views on correct usage are natural. We would not have different languages and dialects without such constant iteration, creativity and error.

From a critical perspective, however, it becomes frustrating to hear others’ incessant use of the same kind of dependent clause to open sentences, particularly when what is spoken doesn’t really make any sense. It’s simply a fashionable and somewhat professional-sounding way of speaking, so everyone is mindlessly jumping on board. Take the last example above in italics: ’From a timing perspective…’. Can timing even have a perspective? Is timing a sentient being with eyes or its own mental processes and experiences, from which it can offer its own view at all or perceive three-dimensional space as we do? If it isn’t a sentient being, then what makes the perspective of timing so unique as to call it out?

From a research perspective, let’s look at a few alternatives to this kind of opening dependent clause.

With regard to timing…

On the topic of timing…

Speaking of timing…

Considering the importance of timing…

From a retrospective perspective, do you see how easy it was to find other ways to say it? We have not even explored the possibility of using a synonym for ‘timing’!

From a result-oriented perspective, my recommendation is simple: it is fine to use the word ‘perspective’, of course, but try to use it when referring to someone’s actual view on something; otherwise, mix up your use of language to avoid submitting to groupthink. Here’s an even more extreme idea: drop such an opening altogether! Just say what you have to say.

From a social perspective, you may start to make more sense and stand out with your varied vocabulary.

Rumination 69: It’s All Leek to Me

Continuing the retail-focused theme for rumination this week—let’s face it, I overthink a lot stuff at the shops—Natasha and I made a quick trip to Aldi on the weekend, after we had visited Coles and Country Grocer, where we buy our fruit and veggies.

I’ve long been a fan of the Aldi checkout experience, as they approach bagging with ruthless German efficiency. Yes, say ‘hello’ and be polite, but don’t linger for too long or expect someone to pack your bags for you. Not to mention, if things get really busy, they very quickly open another checkout lane to deal with the crowds, then close it when everyone has been addressed. They mean business.

As Natasha and I visit three different supermarkets in the one centre each week, we always display the printed receipts on top of the relevant bags in our trolley, just to show that we’re not dishonest or hardened grocery thieves. This time at Aldi, as the staff member behind the space-age, anti-COVID-19 super-sneezeguard finished scanning all of our items, she turned to me and said, ‘May I see your receipts for those other groceries, please?’. Natasha and I instantly flashed the two pieces of paper in her face.

She then continued, ‘Oh wow, that was quick, you must be used to doing that!’. After running her eyes over the receipts, she said, ‘Ah OK, there they are! Those leeks in your trolley look a lot like the ones that we have here’. We subsequently completed the transaction, said ‘thanks’ and left the shop.

As we walked through the centre to reach the car park, Natasha and I discussed this comment about similar-looking leeks, feeling somewhat baffled. There was no packaging or labelling on the leeks that we purchased so that certainly was not the reason for leek-theft suspicion. She must have thought that the leeks themselves looked the same.

Following this, we wondered, ‘How much variation could there possibly be between leek varieties at Australian supermarket retailers?’. Indeed, the leeks did look the same, as they are leeks! We had also purchased capsicums, mushrooms, apples, oranges and other fruit and veggies at Country Grocer before arriving at Aldi and I can tell you, having walked past the equivalent products at our final food destination, they all looked the same too.

Perhaps the next time that we visit Aldi, if I see the same person, I may have to strike up a conversation about the aesthetic similarities between varieties of this edible, elongated cylindrical bulb within the genus Allium—to which the beloved onion also belongs. Furthermore, we may even have to conduct a detailed analysis of said leeks, to measure the extent to which the vegetable’s flat leaf-sheaths overlap each other, when compared to samples from competing retailers. To conclude, depending on the enthusiasm of the Aldi staff member and their willingness to waste (undoubtedly measured) time at the checkout, we could even explore the history of this vegetable and its noble status as the Welsh national emblem.

Until then, it’s all leek to me.

Rumination 68: Beware the Bagging Area!

My last rumination was inspired by a trip to the shops and so is today’s. (To be honest, my next one will also refer to a recent shopping experience.) In general, shopping centres and supermarkets offer wonderful opportunities to observe the weirdness of society.

During our most recent trip to do buy groceries, we were forced to use the self-checkout machine at Coles, as a number of lanes with humans were closed due to social-distancing measures. Those that were open had long lines. Typically, I avoid using these contraptions because I find them to be slow, unreliable and an example of automation that does very little to help anybody, particularly those who would otherwise have a job in the exact same space if it weren’t for that machine.

This most recent experience confirmed for me why I do not use them. Although we followed the recommended bagging procedure, the machine froze after only one item had been scanned; we required a staff member to unlock it for us. I took the photo below in immediate frustration, with the intention of writing this piece.

The funny thing is that this occurred three more times after I took this photo. With each freezing of the machine, we had to wait like fools for the same staff member, who was responsible for all the other befuddled customers in the same area who were experiencing the same problem.

We wasted so much time at this checkout and watched others struggle. It leaves me wondering what the actual benefit of these machines could be, other than profit (due to not paying people). It certainly couldn’t be saved time and with the increased likelihood of shoplifting, that makes it even more confusing.

The next time that you visit a supermarket, if such machines are available and you can avoid using them, do exactly that to send the organisation responsible a message. The less that we use them, the better.

Rumination 67: Tailor-made Absorbency

Whenever I do the grocery shopping with Natasha, she often has to hurry me along as I spend time too much shaking my head at some of the ridiculous marketing, packaging and product installations that can be found around the supermarket. We all know that this environment is constructed to encourage us to buy stuff that we don’t need, however many people do not stop to critique some of the more ludicrous things. I make a point of doing it.

I do not have any children (yet), however for a long time I have been put off by the relentless gendering of products for young kids. This is one thing that I sometimes stop to observe. One product that stood out to me during a trip to the shops on the weekend was nappies. In this case, it was not just a matter of blue versus pink on the packaging, there was also this stupid claim:

Yes, that’s right: tailor-made absorbency is available for each sex! It’s now not enough simply to tell people which product to buy based on colour; we are supposed to believe that buying the incorrect nappy will lead to a less-than-optimum rate of absorption, which (who knows?) could lead to undesired spillage.

When I first read ‘tailor-made’, the image that came to my mind was one of a refined gentleman in a boutique, wearing a measuring tape around his shoulders, helping parents to measure up the finest disposable nappy for their new bundles of joy. This makes a huge difference for infants.

These days, we live in a world that is so saturated with products that companies are desperate to differentiate their own offerings in the most outrageous ways possible. Many things are simply a commodity, so they need that extra push. False advertising apparently is not permitted, however the definition of that term seems to have been made less clear. What does it really mean to advertise falsely today and how do we identify it? Clearly, if this sort of claim of ‘tailor-made absorbency’ is allowed, false advertising must be so blatant—such as the reporting of a completely false statistic—for it actually to be noticed. The thing that makes this claim so laughable and yet apparently not false enough to be challenged, is that it is a mass consumer product that is being sold with the message that it has been customised. No one is taking their baby to a gentleman in a boutique to make this possible.

Disappointingly, I also believe that responsibility falls on consumers in general to call this out or make a change and they’re not going to do it. Even with all of the chatter about content and messages being ‘targeted’ and ‘personalised’, you would hope that people would realise that what they see in their online feeds, on the physical supermarket shelf or in their ‘watch-next’ queue is not really personal or tailor-made at all.

Despite what many say, I believe that we continue to live in a mass culture—it’s just that we only see a sliver of that which is delivered en masse, because we’re dim enough to inform marketers of what it is that we like. It’s the same old mass culture dressed up as personal in a saturated market of fragmented options. Online, for instance, although people may see TikTok or Instagram videos that match their interests, what is it that everyone’s talking really about? It’s the networks themselves: TikTok and Instagram. This goes back to Marshall McLuhan’s classic aphorism: the medium is the message. The personal messages that we receive matter very little (if at all); it’s the medium/platform that exerts this influence and we’re all still using the same stuff. That’s mass culture and it being sold to us falsely.

Bringing it back to nappies, I would simply say this: do not buy anything that makes such a spurious claim on its packaging or description. If you do, you’ve just told the manufacturer and its marketing people that what they have done is OK. When you think that something is ‘tailor-made’ or ‘personalised’—whether on a shelf or online—and fail to see a boutique gentleman with a measuring tape, question if it really is the case.

Rumination 66: An Essential Roll

During last week’s episode of the Lounge Ruminator podcast, 17. Non-essential Formula, I spent some time discussing what it means to be ‘essential’ and indeed, ‘non-essential’. It is not only a shift in our vernacular to use these phrases, but also a shift in the way that we think about people’s value in society; this is likely to continue affecting our thoughts and behaviour in the future.

Once I had finished editing the episode, I thought that I would search for an appropriate photo to use as the featured image here on my site. In the end, I settled on the picture of a formula on a whiteboard that you see there now (through the link above), however that is not the first image that I found.

While visiting the stock-image site Pexels to find an image, I searched for the term ‘essential’ to see what would appear. I was most amused (and somewhat disturbed) by what was shown in the search results. View the results here or simply look at the interesting screenshot of the results below.

Various images of toilet paper
Humankind’s most precious resource…

That’s right: almost all the results display toilet paper, apart from some occasional images of ‘essential’ oils (hmmm…) and clothes. The images don’t display anything that’s actually essential, such as water or anything to do with air, food, shelter or necessary jobs.

Now to be clear, I have no idea if toilet paper was a major feature in the search results for the word ‘essential’ prior to the whole COVID-19 crisis, however I think that it is safe to assume that this is a more recent development.

Reflecting on my episode from last week, I was obviously mistaken when I said that words such as ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ would make us reconsider how we value people across society. Instead, I should have done an episode entirely about toilet paper—as we can see from both Pexels and panic-buying on the news—that in the year 2020, toilet paper is all that people really deem to be essential.

Rumination 65: Gyros Distortion Field

In our non-stop, interconnected world of social media and instant messaging, we’re used to being bombarded with images and advertising. Even if we leave networks or try to look away, we’re still subjected to content by those around us. Maybe it’s the fellow commuter who’s watching YouTube in the train seat next to you or the businessperson at the café, who’s implementing meaningful synergy, vertical integration and opportunities for learning and development on LinkedIn in front of you in the coffee queue. We’re even subjected to kids flossing on free-to-air ads about the National Broadband Network these days. Whatever you do, you cannot escape.

Just about every social network or piece of online content tries to impose its own illusion view of the world—a reality distortion field, if you will. Occasionally, however, our eyes are opened to the reality of the content that is produced; we see a moment (behind the scenes) that breaks that illusion of photographic perfection in our scrolling news feeds. I had such a moment recently at the local Eat Street food market in Wollongong.

What you can see above is the creation of what I am calling the ‘gyros distortion field’ by two people who work at a Mediterranean food stand (pronounced ‘yih-ross’). The woman to the left is holding a phone in one hand and a gyros in the other, lining up the delicious food item between the lens and the back of her colleague’s shirt, which bears the logo of their business. Undoubtedly this was intended for Instagram or some other feed. It’s quite a typical format for a street-food shot—one that people now accept and scroll past perhaps without thinking how it was constructed.

I happened to be walking past these two while they took the photo and couldn’t help but chuckle as they looked ridiculous in the process. Here is this woman, taking a photo of a wrap with no one else around, apart from a colleague who apparently seems intent on ignoring her. Years ago, people would have found this odd but no one other than I stopped to watch them.

To me, this is the modern social-media equivalent of watching boy bands dancing or hip-hop artists rapping in a music video. It all looks pretty slick when the footage is edited together with quick cuts, however to be there on set would mean simply watching a bunch of guys dancing and flicking cash at no one. There is no physical audience present, only the eventual one that’s glued to a screen.

Do you ever stop to wonder how posts are constructed? Next time such a thing pops up in your feed, spare a moment to consider the poor souls who had to make fools of themselves in public.

Rumination 64: Tautological Torture

Over the years, something that has stood out to me in advertising and business is the excessive use of tautology. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘tautology’, Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: ‘The saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style (e.g. they arrived one after the other in succession)‘.

Consider, for example, the phrases ‘safe haven’ and ‘pre-prepared plan’: havens are safe by definition and plans are always prepared, not to mention the word ‘prepared’ already contains the prefix ‘pre-’, which denotes the idea of occurring beforehand anyway.

In advertising for retail businesses, you’ll often see numerous tautologies included just to make it sound like you’re about to receive much more value as a customer. You see, companies want you to believe that you’re getting the best deal. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Plus a bonus item’ — ‘plus’ and ‘bonus’ both mean ‘additional’;
  • ‘Added extras’ — extras can only be added;
  • ‘Further accessories’ — accessories are never the main event; and
  • ‘Free gift’ — have you ever paid to receive your own gift?

Whenever I encounter this kind of useless language in television advertisements or on signage, I find it annoying and perplexing. First, the language is clumsy and unnecessary; why not just reduce the wording to communicate clearly and efficiently? Second, I fear that many people really do fall for this stuff. Third—and this is the big one—it concerns me that the people who are employed to write such advertising copy don’t realise that their use of language sounds stupid, therefore continuing to think that it is professional, elegant and proper.

One unexpected example of retail tautology struck me this week, consequently arousing the third point in my mind from the above paragraph. You can see it in the image below, which was taken at our local Woolworths.

In case you can’t read it properly, this overhead sign in an aisle is advertising packs of reusable food containers for two dollars. Under the large (main) price, however, it notes the price for separate food containers, which is 40 cents. The smaller text says ‘40¢ per ea’.

40¢ per ea

I stopped in the aisle and stared at this, confused by what I was reading. Was this sign actually displaying a slightly shorter way of saying ‘per each’? If that was true, one might as well have written ‘per per’ or ‘each each’! Surely ‘40¢ each’ would have been sufficient and correct for the sign.

After taking the photo and walking away, I reconsidered things and thought to myself, ‘Aha, the part that only says ”ea” must be an abbreviation or contraction of something, like “item” or “unit” instead’.

Well, after some basic searching on the Web, I confirmed this to be the case. When writing ‘per ea’, the ‘ea’ part indeed means one unit—it’s just a way that businesses tend to shorten it. Still, I wasn’t satisfied without knowing what ‘ea’ was actually shortening… then I found this, which confirms that ‘ea’ really does shorten the word ‘each’!

Thinking about this, although ‘ea’ stands for an individual unit, some bright spark in the business world decided to invent the phrase ‘per ea’, knowing full well that the latter part simply stood for the word ‘each’ and doubled things up, when words such as ‘item’, ‘product’, ‘unit’, ‘object’, ‘goods’, ‘wares’, ‘merchandise’, ‘article’ and ‘produce’ were already available in the English language.

Let’s not forget that the main price in larger font also contains the letters ‘ea’, which in this context refers to each package, rather than each unit. Each ‘ea’ for ‘each’ technically means something different. What a mess!

In the typical style of overused initialisms like ‘ROI’, ambiguous terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘learnings’ and empty phrases such as ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’ and ‘take offline’, businesspeople have invented a useless, confusing, tautological phrase to refer back to an item in an abbreviated form that could have been noted simply with the word ‘each’ next to a price.

Ultimately in closing the end of this rumination to achieve a result, I’d like to finish finally with this culminating conclusion on broader linguistic habits (including and beyond tautology): people in business simply like to complicate things to appear specialised and intelligent, then need to shorten things to make them easier and quicker to say, which then leads those who follow them to accept such constructions blindly with little idea of what they mean and why they came to be.

The End


Rumination 63: Sole of an Adult

A term that I’ve read repeatedly online over the years is ‘adulting’. Generally, twenty-somethings carry on painfully about how they feel like they’re ‘adulting’, just because they managed to open a savings account, go shopping for groceries or choose to stay home on a Friday night (rather than head out with friends to embarrass themselves while intoxicated at a slimy late-night venue with an entrance fee and toilet cubicles sans doors).

In case you haven’t got the vibe, I find the term ‘adulting’ to be tiresome and an Insta-shriek for attention.

Yet this week, I noticed a change in myself that could be categorised as ‘adulting’. As background, for some time I have been wearing shoes to work that could best be described as—in my own ignorant parlance—low-cut, matte, suede-ish dress boots. They are comfortable, easily paired with both formal and smart-casual outfits and quick to slip on and lace up. Unfortunately, they have faded heavily and the soles have become warped. It’s not the best look to turn up to work this way but I have been unable to decide which other pair of shoes in my cupboard would be appropriate; you see, they’re all more expensive, more formal and more fragile.

On the weekend, while shopping and out for lunch with Natasha and her mum, it occurred to me that I should buy new shoes. I needed a pair that was, as I have already stated, appropriate for smart-casual and more formal situations but also more durable than my current boots.

Natasha was pleased to hear that we were going to a visit a shoe shop; she then helped me to pick out a comfortable leather shoe with more of a sneaker sole: comfier, more durable and inconspicuous in black. Perfect!

As I stood at the counter, making inane conversation with the shop attendant about the security of Apple Pay, it hit me: while already an adult for years, I was in the process of ‘adulting’. Natasha was happy to visit the shoe shop because I avoided shoe-shopping for so long. I was wearing my shoes into the ground because that’s what I did as a kid. Shoe-shopping is boring.

There I was, as an adult, standing in a shop to buy work shoes because they were a necessary and sensible purchase, all the while discussing the necessity of a secure enclave on a wrist-worn device for tap payments.

In 2020, with these new, totally unremarkable yet comfortable shoes, I am fully adult.

Rumination 62: Carelessness

As a lifelong Mac user and general Apple fan, I believe strongly in caring for what are quite expensive, well-designed devices.

As a sign of my commitment to keeping products as close to their original condition as possible, I once took my then seven-year old unibody MacBook for a trackpad repair (where I worked at the time) and was told by the technician that it was the most pristine item that he had ever seen brought into the shop.

Not everyone, however, is as careful as this. I was reminded of just how unusual and careless some computer use can be during my recent flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Across the aisle from me, a young man had a 13-inch MacBook Pro in the pouch of the seat in front of him and was using an iPhone 11 Pro. When he wasn’t sleeping, he watched consecutive instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise on his iPhone. First, this was the unusual part: rather than preload his movie files (from iTunes in the TV app) to watch on the Mac’s larger display, he held the iPhone in his lap, hunching forwards and looking down. It’s odd not to want to use a larger display for movies but fair enough.

Then came the careless part, which made this choice seem stranger: tired of holding the iPhone and straining his neck to look down, he removed his Mac from the pouch, put it on the folding tray table and opened the lid slightly, in order to sandwich the iPhone between the trackpad and the top of the lid. He was using his pricey, current-generation MacBook Pro as an iPhone stand.

Eventually, he became tired of this too, as his iPhone repeatedly slipped out from underneath the display, hitting his Mac’s trackpad with a frustrating crunch. What was the solution? He closed his Mac’s lid and propped up the iPhone against the back of the seat in front of him, probably hoping that the person in front would not recline. Fortunately, they didn’t. Still, his iPhone slipped more than once.

I understand that not every Apple product user is going to be as much of a fan as I am. Damage happens and my own devices aren’t in perfect condition. What baffles me is that people who can afford such products are generally ungrateful for them and treat them poorly. Casting my mind back to when I worked for an authorised Apple reseller, I can recall people who brought in desktop Mac’s with heavily dinted edges, iPods that had been dropped in toilets, iPhones with smashed and missing bezels and laptops full of dog hair. I also remember my wife Natasha mentioning how she once distributed new staff iPads during a meeting, with one staff member deciding to place soy crisps on the her new iPad’s display like a plate, while it sat flat on the table in front of her.

More and more, we see people buying products that they perhaps don’t even need, just to fulfil their own personal desires or aspiration for fashion and status. Not once did this guy turn on his laptop during the entire 14-hour flight. This is the true mark of consumerism: not just lots of unnecessary stuff, but also treating it as disposable.

There are people all over the world who would love to be able to afford such devices. As those who are privileged, being careful with and grateful for what we have is the least that we can do to justify what we buy.