Sunday, August 16, 2015

2020 vision

I am finding the Labour leadership contest absolutely fascinating
You get a sense that the three sensible, moderate and realistic candidates are in a state of shock. Until a few weeks ago they were under the impression they understood how to do politics — it being essentially a matter of selling the electorate a well-formulated and attractively packaged product. And yet they now suddenly find themselves eclipsed by someone who looks like a geography teacher — for goodness sake.
The bit they really don’t seem to get is that, in reality, it’s not so much about Jeremy Corbyn as it is about an energy that is beginning to well up amongst ordinary people, a sense that things might be organised differently — not only more fairly, but more imaginatively and effectively. But, above all, it is the fact that people are talking to one another again that is most exciting. I have seen it and it’s real. It’s as if we have been in a deep enchanted sleep and now we are waking up — and not a moment too soon.
We have been duped, taken for idiots and sold the outlandish story that the processes involved in the concentration of monetary wealth are entirely natural and capable of delivering general wellbeing all round -- were it not for our sentimental attachment to older, less effective ways of doing things.
Except, this is not actually the story we have been sold. Though it might be an accurate summary of what is meant by neoliberalism it is a draught that is still too bitter to be taken straight.
Instead, we have the simpler story that says the country is like a household: if you spend too much you get into debt and debt leads to problems. So the most important thing is we have to stop spending and learn to live according to our means — austerity in other words. Much though we might be attached to the NHS, mutual societies, free education and the BBC, they are all simply too expensive.
This is a narrative that has been adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, by both main parties. To be fair, the Labour version has placed greater stress on the need to mitigate austerity’s harmful side effects, but the underlying premise has not been seriously questioned — at least not until recently, when we begin to see the terrible cost that this narrow ideology is exacting from a growing portion of the population. Children growing up in ugly and unsanitary homes; young people leaving university laden with debts; those starting young families unable to find anywhere to live; the elderly left to fade away in under-resourced care facilities
It needn’t be like this. With energy and imagination we can create something better.
In the last few days I have heard two of the three sensible, moderate and realistic leadership candidates say:
“I love the Party too much to see it … blah blah blah”
Maybe that is the problem: they have come to love the party so much that they have overlooked the fact that their job is to represent the rest of us.
Their line is that Corbyn will take us all back to the 1980s when the party — though not necessary everyone else — had a particularly hard time.
I remember the 1980s: we’re not going back there anyway; we’re going forward — to 2020.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Andrew's Liver Salts

To: GlaxoSmithKline
      Consumer Healthcare

Re: Original Andrew's Salts

Though I am only an occasional user of this product, I find it effective and always try to keep some to hand. All the same, the packaging of your product is without doubt one of the most extreme cases of bad design I have ever come across. 

I am talking about the plastic, oval bottle with the blue spoon attached to the lid. 

I am taking the time to write about this because I am genuinely fascinated by the process that led to such a design being dreamed up, approved and put into production. It's not simply a matter of not being good, it's more a case of taking bad design to new heights. In short, the person who designed this packaging is clearly something of an evil genius. 

Let's start at the top: 

Firstly there's that spoon that you have to snap off to use. It's too short for a start. As soon as the level of the contents is down to around 80% they can no longer be reached by the spoon – which is probably a good thing, as it is stored in an exposed position on the top of the lid and liable to get dirty. What's more, the way the lid opens makes it almost inevitable that you will place the tip of your finger in the bowl of the spoon just prior to using it – not a good idea. 

No, snap the spoon off and throw it away. It's worse than useless. To get at the contents you will need a very special kind of spoon. A teaspoon is too short. A desertspoon would be long enough but is too wide to use in the very awkwardly shaped container. No – you will need to get yourself one of those long-handled, teaspoon-sized spoons used in ice-cream parlours. You should keep one where you will be able to find it easily, in the middle of the night, when suffering from indigestion. 

The lid is not easy to use either. On the face of it, it looks OK. There's a little depression in the end and a projecting tab for the thumb – but I always find myself trying a couple of other ways first. It's a problem that starts with that spoon. The lid moulding presents two or three distinct profiles that each looks like it might the edge of the lid, together with intriguing tabs to try with your thumbnail.  

It is difficult to believe that such a simple piece of packaging can be so rich in surprises. For example, I was astounded to read on the label on the back of the container:  

See inside label for how to open and dosage instructions

Am I to take this to mean that there is a second label, inside the container that gives you instructions on how to open it ?

However, on the lower corner of the first label there is a triangular yellow tab bearing this amazing statement: 

Peel here but do not remove

On carefully peeling back the corner of the label I discovered there is a second, hidden label underneath containing, amongst other things, advice on opening the container and correct use of the spoon. This must be the mysterious inside label referred to earlier. 

All the same, as the advice is not to remove the outer label, I carefully lower it back in place. 

In this age of technological marvels, of incomprehensible machines and processes, of expert design and professionalism, it's encouraging to come across something so bad as to be almost brilliant. It restores my faith in the imperfection of human nature. 

Somewhere, in your organisation there is an exceptional individual, capable of the most bizarre and dysfunctional feats of design. If you are aware of any other examples of his (or her) work, I would be most interested to know of them. 


William Wormwood

... a week or two later I received a reply

Dear Mr Wormwood, 

Thank you for your letter regarding your disappointment with the pack design of our Andrew's Salts. We are proud of our reputation for high quality and are sorry that we have not met your expectations on this occasion. As we are continually assessing our products with regard to packaging etc. we are grateful that you have gone to the trouble of letting us know your views. 

Yours sincerely, 

[illegible squiggle

Breaking news: 

I note, on visiting my local pharmacy that the packaging remains essentially unchanged but that they have dispensed with the removable spoon. I like to think it was my allusions to the risk of bacterial contamination that prompted them to action. 

All the same, I would have loved to known more of that designer; I can't help fantasising that he or she was responsible the Dyson DC21:

The Centre Ground

I find myself irritated and depressed by all this talk about The Centre Ground in politics and in particular by the idea that it is only parties of the centre ground that have any hope of forming governments.

It’s not that I consider the Centre Ground to be a meaningless term - on the contrary it is very real, having something of the feel of a boxing ring in which a succession of centre left and centre right opponents slug it out to the point where one is declared the winner. The problem is: the boxing ring has been staked out for us by others, as a place where we can play out the game of electoral politics as an essentially safe sport. Meanwhile the machinery or power rolls on — to the spectacular benefit of a few, but with increasingly terrible consequences for the poor, underpaid, homeless and disabled.

We really must try to imagine something better; it’s not that difficult.

The refreshing thing is that there are more and more people — both young and old — who are asking, quite reasonably, why things at a national level can’t be ordered at least as well as (say) the Glastonbury Festival.

Of course, there will be people inclined to dismiss this as idle fantasy. After all, isn’t the Centre Ground defined by what the majority of people believe and desire? Yes maybe — but beliefs can be shaped and desires can be nurtured. It hardly takes a conspiracy theorist to see that News International, for example, devotes considerable resources to ensuring that elections produce governments that will be sympathetic to its aims. Thus people who question the established order are portrayed as infantile, easily-manipulated and naive — in contrast to the realistic, responsible and mature individuals who decide, on balance, that things are fine as they are.

Writing about the French Revolution, Wordsworth declared “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” but he was a young poet and inclined to get carried away with himself. Once the heads started falling into baskets he came to his senses.

So — the advice goes —  by all means feel free to dream and have ideals, but when it comes to changing things it’s probably best to leave well alone. Of course the argument doesn’t carry too much weight with someone on minimum wage working in a call centre or a single mother wondering how to give her children a decent start in life.  

Despite what we are told by the dried-up old mandarins of the political establishment, I believe that things are on the move — and it fills me with hope and optimism. And if it is true that elections are only won on the centre ground, then it is high time we set about shifting it.

So I have registered as a Labour Party supporter and I will vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I believe him to be a decent man, putting forward sensible, moderate policies. I am astonished by the number of people who appear to agree with me.

It goes without saying that a Corbyn victory will provoke a firestorm of abuse from the neo-liberal establishment and large sections of the press — that much we can be sure of.