Archive for January, 2010

In defence of vaguetarianism

Posted: January 28, 2010 in Food, Health

You needn’t go the whole hog – go vague instead!

Vaguetarians can be seen as a bit of a joke. Too wimpy to become full vegetarians and too much like hippies to become carnivores, they attempt to embody the middle ground with as much dignity as possible.

The urban dictionary’s definition sums up the cynical attitude many people have towards vaguetarians:

Someone who professes to be a non meat eater and fesses up to gobbling (no pun) turkey or chicken etc. Also very keen on fish …..and pork is ok.

“For goodness sake take that rabbit food away I am a vaguetarian now’t to stop me having some of your Chickenburger”.

At the start of this year I resolved to become a vaguetarian. You probably think that an odd thing. Why resolve to be vague about something? That’s like resolving to give up chocolate on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Or resolving to give up beer except when you’re at the pub, or at a friend’s, or watching a football game etc.

I believe that vaguetarianism is a great thing however. For some, it is a comfortable transition phase from being a meat-eater to being a vegetarian. For others, it is a welcome compromise.

I find it hard not to eat meat. Yet, I also find myself preferring a vegetarian diet. To the absolutists, I am a either a failed vegetarian or a carnivore in denial. As far as I am concerned, I am a healthy compromise – a meat-eater whose diet has an emphasis on non-meat food.

The benefits of a vaguetarian diet are numerous. For starters, you eat less meat and more vegetables. Growing evidence suggests that eating less meat (particularly red meat) is good for you, while vegetarians tend to be healthier and live longer.

There is also an economic incentive. You can dramatically reduce your shopping bill by cutting down on meat and eating more vegetables instead. Meat dishes in restaurants are almost always more expensive than their vegetarian counterparts, so you can save money while eating out too.

The money you save can be used to buy good quality meat from a local butcher once or twice a week. We are lucky in my hometown in that we have a good butcher who knows the farmers who supply him. The difference in quality between his meat and supermarket meat is remarkable.

Those contemplating the life of a vaguetarian should know that you are in good company. The American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was a famous vaguetarian. Despite often professing the benefits of vegetarianism, Thoreau wavered between a meat-diet and non-meat diet throughout his life.

For those familiar with Thoreau this may come as a surprise. Thoreau was a man who lived strictly by principle. In 1846 he refused to pay his taxes as an act of protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War. He was subsequently imprisoned for one night and only released after a relative paid the government off.

How amusing that someone who had no qualms about refusing to pay his taxes for six years should find it difficult not to eat meat! Yet, I and other vaguetarians know the difficulty Thoreau faced.

Some vaguetarians feel guilty about their ambiguous principles. They see their inability to commit themselves to a vegetarian diet as a weakness. I felt this way too, until I realised that there is no use striving to be something I am not. Getting over this guilt is a difficult but important step in the life of a vaguetarian.

Overcome the guilt and the cynicism and you can delight in the vagueness of a vaguely vegetarian diet. Eat, drink and be merry!

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Of Machines and Men

Posted: January 21, 2010 in History, Work

The story of Frederick Winslow Taylor and how humans came to be treated like machines.

There are times during my shifts at Domino’s Pizza when I can almost feel him breathing down my neck. It is just my imagination, of course. He’s been dead for almost 100 years. Yet his influence remains so strong that I can feel his legacy trapping me in his narrow ideology. “Piss off Fred,” I feel like saying.

I am not alone in this. If you have ever had a job then you have probably met him too. If you have worked in a factory, a call centre, a restaurant or even an office then you have almost certainly experienced the legacy of a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor, and his enduring idea of scientific management.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an American engineer who devoted his life to making industry efficient. Born in 1856, Taylor grew up during a time when machines were on the rise. A popular folktale of the day told the story of John Henry, a railroad worker who won a race against a steam powered hammer, only to die with his hammer in his hand. The message seems pretty clear: you can give your best, but machines always win in the end.

Taylor was fascinated with the efficiency of machines. He believed that if factory workers were managed in the same way that a worker operates a machine – with technical precision – then a business could dramatically improve its efficiency.

The application of his ideas met with outstanding results. In 1881, Taylor managed to cut the number of workers at the Bethlehem Steel Works from 500 to 140, while increasing output by 200%! But while his management innovations often met with success, there was an agenda with Taylor that sought to undermine the human element of work.

In Herd, Mark Earls describes how Tayor was concerned with “reducing the variable human element of factory work.” He saw humans as unpredictable, lazy, and much less reliable than machines. Taylor used scientific methods to specify tasks for each individual, so that they could work with the same efficiency as machines.

Taylor’s ‘scientific’ method – outlined in Principles of Scientific Management – included the following key principles:

  1. Breaking down the work of employees into specific tasks, according to precise instructions.
  2. The development – through scientific means – of a ‘best-practise’ instruction for each person’s job.
  3. The recruitment, training and development of workers to fit the job specified, rather than allowing workers to choose their jobs and training.
  4. Functions are more important than people. Clerks should monitor, report and control the performance of tasks.

Through Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor laid the groundwork for the technocratic management style which dominates the world today. Efficiency is the primary goal, and workers must strive to achieve this. Factory workers once decided how to manage work among themselves. Taylor’s philosophy replaced this with a management – worker monologue.

I often make mistakes at Domino’s Pizza. I put the wrong toppings on without thinking. Ten minutes later, when the pizza is cooked, I hear the Assistant Manager shout out – “Who made this pizza?” It was the same story in all my other jobs – call centre, restaurant etc. I used to think it was because I am absent-minded, but now I believe there’s more to it.

Mark Earls believes that one of the most enduring delusions of Taylor’s management innovation is “the goal of machine-like efficiency – and the possibility that it can be achieved.” There is a persisting belief that workers can and should be as fast, efficient and accurate as a machine. Mistakes are generally not tolerated.

Mistakes are uncomfortable reminders of how completely unlike machines humans actually are. This is especially so in a job which involves doing the same thing over and over again. A machine can perform the same task – say, putting toppings on a pizza – a thousand times without making a mistake. Humans on the other hand tend to get bored, become distracted, or go insane.

It is unsurprising that Taylor’s ideas were highly influential on industrialists like Henry Ford. The father of modern assembly lines, Ford once complained that “every time I ask for a pair of hands it comes with a brain attached”. What Ford really wanted was a robot.

It seems obvious to us that humans are not like machines, and that the idea of basing a management ‘science’ on such a tenet is absurd. Yet this assumption continues to dominate working life. From offices to factories, Taylor’s emphasis on efficiency traps the hapless workers of the world on a daily basis.

It seems strange that so many of us – whether we are workers or managers – are trapped in the ideas of a man who lived over a hundred years ago. The first step to overcoming this is to recognise the falsity of the ideas. The next step is to resist behaviour which has been created by these ideas.

If you are a factory/office worker, and you find yourself worrying about making mistakes, try to remember Frederick W. Taylor. I find that it really puts things into context. I realise that worrying about something which is inevitable – due to our nature – is absurd.

If you are a manager and you find yourself expecting your employees to behave in a machine-like way, do as above. Resist the urge to manage them ‘scientifically’ or to view them as pairs of hands that happen to have brains. Start treating people like humans and you might receive some surprising benefits. After all,  humans can do a lot of things that machines can’t.

It used to be that only celebrities had to worry about intrusive photographers. With the rise of Facebook however, we are all becoming victims of the voyeurism of others.

Last summer I attended an excellent party in the Wiltshire countryside. As with most good parties I invariably became drunk, performed ridiculous actions and then was swiftly taken home – with a change of clothes, in this case.

When I awoke the next morning – with the usual mixture of hangover and regret – I was shocked to find that photos of the party had already been put on Facebook. I am not against photos being taken at parties. I have come to expect it at the early stages of a party, when everyone is sober enough to feign a pose. But when the party is in full swing! Now, that I object to.

The problem with a photograph is that it can never fully capture the moment. It can record visual data with great accuracy – sometimes too much accuracy! – but there is a lot more to a good party than visual data. Because of this the photo is always out of context and is rendered meaningless. (Tabloids and gossip rags thrive on this by the way, inventing scintillating stories to go with each picture.)

In most cases this isn’t a problem, as we can imagine the context more or less accurately for ourselves. It will never be the same, but it will be close. An example is a photo of someone who has just hit their thumb with a hammer. We can easily imagine the pain that person must have felt, and it will probably be quite accurate. With a party however, things are different.

A good party is full of chaotic energy and, like a theatrical production, is different every night. One of the best parties during the Middle Ages was the festival of the Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night featured The Lord of Misrule – generally a peasant – who reigned over the celebrations. The hierarchy was reversed and, for a day, chaos and revelry ruled.

A modern party needs the same sense of anarchy. Alcohol provides the usual means. As people loosen, social boundaries slowly disappear. Things begin to happen in the party world that would never happen in the everyday world. Often they happen within a game, where the rules of the game replace the rules of society. Twister is a great example – can you imagine people doing that in any other setting? Party games are as liberating as they are ancient, originating in the Roman and pagan festivals that came before Twelfth Night.

The everyday world and the party world should co-exist in a kind of balance. When the balance is disturbed, bad things happen. When the Roman festival of Saturnalia – the forerunner of Twelfth Night – was shortened by Caesar Augustus, it caused huge revolts among the people. Euripides recognised the need for balance in his play, The Bacchae. In trying to repress the worship of Dionysus – the god of wine and ecstasy – the young king Pentheus brings ruin to his city, his family and himself.

For many, keeping this balance is the secret to a good party life. For others, it creates a difficult tension between reality and fantasy. I believe that this tension is a good thing, however. It can make you aware of the fantasy in your everyday life, and when the worlds blur. Once you get used to the tension, you can see the world as a kind of theatre.

Some believe that the everyday world and the party world should be kept separate. That, just as the Twelfth Night festival ended on the stroke of midnight, so all parties must come to an end. With light heads, the revellers must make their way home in the darkness, for the dawn brings the return of the ‘real’ world. This has long been the conventional thought on the subject. I am not so convinced.

By bringing elements of the party world into the everyday world, we can become aware of how we play roles in life – from the ambitious office worker to the reckless party animal. We can see how these roles – while important – need not dominate us, and that we can have fun with them.

Transporting elements of the party world into the everyday world also gives us an opportunity to subvert the rules (social conventions, etiquette etc.) of the everyday world. In doing this we can emphasise the above point – about the roles we play – and have fun at the same time. The whole process allows us to increase our understanding of what constitutes reality.

At this point you might say: “Surely that is what Facebook photos of parties are doing – bringing elements of the party world into the everyday world.” But Facebook photos of parties are not elements of the party world; they are just photos (visual data) of the party world.

Photos of the party world (or of anything else) are static. They do not convey the dynamic energy of a party. They are objects of the everyday world, which is also static. As objects they become open to judgement by the social and moral standards of the everyday world.

By taking elements of the party world and turning them into objects of the everyday world, photos undermine the mystery and the reality of the party world. They ridicule the dynamic chaos (aka fun!) of a party by making it look stupid and even offensive. They are, in short, an unfit representation of the party world and should be abandoned altogether.

Perhaps the best argument against Facebook photos of parties is that in order for the photographer to satisfy their voyeuristic urges they need to stay sober. Now what kind of party is that! Next time you go to a party, leave your camera at home. You might end your days like Pentheus if you don’t. Forget the photos, unwind and have fun.

Photo credit: Will Montague