Dairy Milk

ImageAccording to The Guardian, there is a furore over Dairy Milk’s new rounded shapes, as the chocolate tastes sweeter. Dairy Milk promise the recipe hasn’t changed.

Sensory scientist, Charles Spence, says that people associate sweetness with round shapes and bitterness with angular.  Circles are sweet, while triangles and stars are bitter, as well as associated with fizz.

Spence also asked subjects to match speech sounds to different chocolates, as well as shapes. Lindt extra creamy (30% cocoa) gets soft-sounding, lower pitched sounds like ‘maluma’. Lindt 70% and 90% get sharper sounds like ‘takete’.

It’s also been found that tastes can be mapped consistently to musical parameters.

“Bitter is associated with low-pitched and continuous music (legato), salty is characterized by silences between notes (staccato), sour is high pitched, dissonant and fast and sweet is consonant, slow and soft.”

These crossmodal correspondences mean we must, deep within our brains, taste our music and hear our tastebuds. A fascinating new area of research about how our brains respond to the world we live in.

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On Boredom

boredom

It’s hard to define boredom, except by its essential lack. It’s about an absence of things: of thoughts, of activities, of fun. I spent childhoods watching rain run down the windows, having read all my books already, and yearning for another Paint-By-Numbers set. My mother used to tell me only stupid people got bored. But I think it’s the converse: it’s the ones whose brains are always flickering and shimmering, seeking out the next novelty, who must tire easiest of what they already know, of the conversations heard a hundred times before, of the words and pictures that can’t fill you up anymore. Powerful brains, the human miracle, that can find hours of imaginative entertainment inside their own head in a doctor’s waiting room, or instead let themselves in five minutes be submerged under the grey lake that is boredom.

Cortisol levels actually rise when we’re bored, showing us in a state of stress. We feel like ‘chewing off our own arm’ or engaging in self-destructive behaviour, we fidget and tap pens and drum our fingers and sigh. Drug addicts are more likely to relapse if they report feeling bored; patients with traumatic brain injuries more likely to report higher levels of boredom and then engage in riskier behaviour to assuage it. Boredom is a state that swallows and encompasses and crushes.

But boredom is increasingly squeezed out of society. Our phones are always in reach, to tap another round of Angry Birds out, or scroll endlessly down Twitter. Boredom is something to be avoided at all costs, to be feared, to seek to stave off its looming presence with low-touch, low-impact digital stimulus, firing up our brain with tiny fragments of pleasure like pixels bouncing across a screen.

However, it’s the strength of our internal resources that pull us through the vacuum of boredom, the wet pictures and fragile worlds we create inside our own selves. So maybe my mother was right. The thoughts that filter into your mind on a three hour train trip when your phone’s out of battery and your whole life seems laid out before you like patchwork fields. The way sunlight drips through grey clouds, how tightly the man next to you is holding onto the headlines in his newspaper, the tessellation of the patterns of the forms of train seats. Or flee instead into a richly created dream world, where magic is the everyday, creating the new from the impossible, seeking novelty in a long story arc, a life of characters who are not like and yet are, me.

I think we are scared of boredom because it is in boredom that we look inside, and see how we have filled ourselves.  

As Martha Naussbaum would put it, “Do not despise your inner world.” Embrace it.

The Need For Speed

Breaking the sound barrierWhen Apple launched the iPad, they predicted it would be used most of the time outside the home: on the commute, when travelling, for spare moments waiting around. But 62% of iPad owners never take their tablet out of the house. Tablets have moved into the living room: they are killing off notebooks, and now are outselling PCs. So how has the iPad been so successful?

 
One reason is speed. It’s simply faster to turn on a tablet. It takes a second to switch itself on, while your laptop is ponderously humming and whirring for at least two minutes. Why are we so impatient nowadays? Watching a microwave cook your food is almost intolerable: something about the countdown of a few minutes of anticipation begins to itch under your skin in the way that forty minutes of baking in the oven never did.

 
Speed is one of the defining features of the world today. Internet connections and computers speed up all the time. Things get quicker and quicker and the rate of change speeds up to. Do you remember the fun little games you used to get to play with your cursor while games loaded? Do you remember the spinning hourglasses or whirling wheels? How often do you see that now? I expect to get as quick a webpage load on my mobile as I do on my computer, if not often quicker.

 
This is often overlooked in the success of things. Surveys suggest that nearly half of users will abandon a site that isn’t loaded within 3 seconds. Make your webpage quick. No matter how good the promised content, no one waits for things to load.

 
Google did an interesting experiment with regard to load times. Marissa Mayer tells a story where Google asked users whether they’d like 10 or 30 Google search results a page, and the users wanted 30. Google implemented what the users asked for. The pages with 30 results had traffic drop and ad revenue to them by 20%. The difference in the loading time: just half a second.

 
Speed counts nowadays. That’s why Facebook’s often quoted motto is: move fast and break things. The first rule is: move fast.

What’s In A Name?

doff thy nameMaybe your parents chose it for you. Maybe you chose it for yourself. It’s probably your father’s surname, though I know people who have hyphenated, or a husband’s, or a great-grandmother’s, or even a hippy blend of both their parents’ first names. And your parents picked out your first name, hopefully checking it for potential teasing nicknames and terrible combinations of initials. But your name might have even further-reaching consequences.

There’s a bizarre phenomenon where people’s own surnames guide them towards their career paths. The New Scientist nicknamed this ‘nominative deternism’ after noticing trend in scientists’ names to reflect on their subjects, including a paper on incontinence, written by J W Splatt and D Weedon.* It might also be genetic – that a good baker comes from a long line of ‘Bakers’, who were originally named for their trade. (No comment on the urologists though.)

The Economist even identifies that world leaders are much more likely to have surnames with A-M than the last half of the alphabet.* It might be that the early-letter surnames spend their time sitting alphabetically, at the front of the class, receiving more attention, being asked to speak more often, and learning more. Or that we still see lists as orders of merits – with those at the top, with the earliest surnames, being the best. The same effect is found for fellowships and Nobel Prizes in economics, where names of contributors are cited alphabetically, but not for psychology, where you’re credited according to the size of your contribution.*

People are even more likely to give to a hurricane relief effort if the initial of the hurricane matches that of their name.*

Our names form a crucial part of our identities, something others label us by. How often have you felt more drawn to, or more competitive with, someone who shares your name? And notice how weirdly intimate you feel when a relative stranger keeps calling you by your name all the time: a standard persuasive technique for pushy salespeople or flirty shop assistants.

‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet might have asked, but a Rose by any other name may not be as sweet.

The Culture in the Middle

Recently someone told me there is no middle-brow culture anymore. We either have high or low. Pizza Express is statistically Britain’s favourite restaurant, but no one ever actually names it  their favourite. We read Jilly Cooper and Twilight or Frantzen and Hollinghurst. It’s trash or Booker prizewinner, and we admit to nothing in between.

Somehow this feels almost on the mark. What I think is happening in culture is a form of ‘modern irony’ that really isn’t even really irony. We watch and read and consume ‘low brow’ because it’s enjoyable. We genuinely love it, but also feel the need to cover it up under the excuse of irony, or being appalled at what we read, or keeping our finger on the pulse. We feel we need to say that it’s terrible quality, an awful show, the worst written book ever…yet also good fun. It’s in this spirit that I read the Daily Mail (online – I still don’t want to give them any money) and watch The Only Way Is Essex.

Tacky is being reclaimed. There’s a little disclaimer now in some of the products we consume, and some surprising fans. I can read the New Scientist and Love It! in the same train ride. So can you.

Welcome to a culture where middle-brow just means averaging out the high and the low.

Meerkatery

Time for a general round-up of lessons learnt – as my campaign to be Meerkovo Ambassador has come to an end:

 

  • Twitter is surprisingly altruistic

Seriously, I have never met you people. I’m doing the online equivalent of unsolicited junk mail. And there you are re-tweeting me, sending me messages of support, offering advice. Humans are wonderful.

  • People still don’t read Facebook events

You can win an iPad by clicking Attending. And that means I’ll donate 50p to charity for you. That’s it. Why would you click Not Attending? You haven’t read the event, have you?

  • Leaving meerkat toys on the Tube makes you feel like a terrorist.

Enough said.

  • Sometimes offline is best

My mother has bullied all relations and friends, near and distant, into voting, and it made me realise what her social network is. Bridge, tennis club, work, university friends, baby playgroup friends, school gates friends. Frankly, it makes Facebook look pathetic in comparison.

  • The power of celebrity is not to be underestimated.

My competitor clinched victory due to a Re-Tweet by Davina McCall that garnered him hundreds of votes in the last weekend. In the online sphere, the power of celebrity is not to be denied. (Though she does have 600,000 followers, so only a few hundred extra votes shows their level of engagement.)

 

I’ll continue to follow the campaign closely, so good luck to Josh, the Meerkovo Ambassador, who richly deserved to win. And to all my fellow competitors. It was, all in all, a pretty bizarre experience.

Oh, and you can see my post on The Wall here

Technologically challenged

Saw this great quote recently:

“Our focus should not be on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices.”
Henry Jenkins, Prof of Comparative Media at MIT

Basically that for all Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, are doing right now, what’s interesting is not how clever, revolutionary and ground-breaking these technologies are in themselves, but how much they change us and how we interact.

Do you know that if you give a laptop to toddlers nowadays they instinctively poke at the screen? They’ve grown up with touch-screen technology.

If you ring a doorbell, do you press it with your index finger or your thumb? Apparently, baby boomers for index finger; Generation Y goes for thumb, used for texting and typing. (Or maybe we’ve all learnt from International Drinking Rules not to point….)

I remember being fascinated years ago on a finding that if two of you are walking down the street, one talking on a mobile, you unconsciously move in to protect your partner. While they’re chatting, you’re subconsciously steering them round street lights and stopping them bumping into people. Like a modern day version of the man keeping his sword hand free to protect his lady.

And, with all the buzz around ‘social media’, it’s worth noting the Internet has always been social. From AOL chat rooms to MSN messenger to forums and notice-boards, we’ve all grown up with online communities. If anything, Facebook is a step backwards to people we’ve (usually) met in real life.

So the question is not only how people get changed by technology, but how people change the technology itself.