xrematon

May 21, 2018

Frazzled

Filed under: Coaching,Consumer Trends,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:35 pm
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‘It’s the spores – all that fungi floating around you – that’s what makes it so special.’

We were discussing the virtues of ‘foresting bathing’, which involves lying down on the forest floor and reaping manifold, albeit somewhat mysterious, benefits. The context: a recent book meeting I attended.

I have picked out this moment as representative of how we often have a tendency to seize on ideas that capture our imagination but not really go much further.

We were meant to be discussing A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax but the book had only be read by a handful of us (a fifth of those attending to be more precise). And, as the above quote suggests, the approach we took to engaging with the book was similarly ‘magpie-ish’.

‘All those exercises Ruby Wax describes, well, I don’t have the time or money to do all that. We’re not all wealthy celebrities who can take time out of the day just like that to do breathing exercises.’

‘I thought mindfulness was all about living in the moment. In the book, it seemed much more complicated than that.’

‘Someone at work gave me this article about how mindfulness is actually bad for you. All that introspection – it can make you down. You need to go out and do stuff, not just navel gaze!’

This chatting reminded me of how people engage with health, and in particular healthy eating. People have caught onto certain ideas and concepts, bringing them into their lives with great enthusiasm, going all out on avoiding gluten-free, eating quinoa with grim determination. In fact, it’s now a majority activity: 54% of the population purchased a ‘free from’ product during the past three months. Or what about the 5-a-day recommendation? Well, the message has definitely got through, but the issue is that though people know about it, they do not act on it – again a bit of a pick-and-mix approach. Only 26% of adults ate the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables a day in 2015.

But with this flitting around between different ideas, I am actually demonstrating the type of behaviours that Frazzled aims to tackle – namely, not letting oneself get distracted by zillions of different thoughts, which aren’t actually the main focus of the task in hand.

Back to the book….

Well, I must confess that the elements I found most engaging were not so much the guidance around how to do mindfulness or explanations of why it is so important in our frenzied modern lives, but more the elements which were closest to telling a story. This story was the story of Ruby Wax’s life and her journey around writing the book – all of which were searingly honest and characteristically spikily funny. As the author makes clear, the book was written with hiatuses – times when depression hit and she fell into bleak black ‘do-nothingness’. She also lets us into her mind and shows how even people whom we might perceive as successful are riddled with insecurity, often in meeting other successful people!

The aspect of the book I found most challenging was the fact it set up a pressing need to deal with stress but was authored by someone deeper in than that, someone who suffered from periodic bouts of debilitating depression. Despite all the humour, it was clear mindfulness, for the author at least, was not about pushing up mental wellbeing, but a vital means for dealing with more profound mental health issues. A genuinely lighter touch might have been more helpful than many brutal but comic asides about the author’s feelings of inadequacy.

In my final words, I would like defend Ruby Wax’s promotion of living in the moment. This is certainly something which is brought up in the book, in several instances, and encouraged for its positive benefits, with advice on how to achieve such moments. Memorably, Wax talks about how delighted she became at eating some potatoes.

‘That night at dinner I fall in love with a potato. I couldn’t believe it could taste so sweet and crunchy and then so fluffy – it had everything going for it. I go into the kitchen and break my silence, demanding to know how they cooked the potato. The chef shows me a potato and some Tesco olive oil. I don’t get it: I have eaten potatoes in my life, but never on this level. Again, I’m wanting another one while I still have one in my mouth, and I think, ‘Yup, this is how I live my life.’

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April 21, 2018

Hairy business

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Futures,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:34 pm
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Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in the ‘personal care’ category – think all things hair, skin and other forms of beauty care.

Now, my first learning was actually that I had a lot to learn. Unlike food, where I not only have done many pieces of work over the years, but I am also deeply personally engaged given that I generally cook from scratch at least 10 meals a week, for personal care, I have limited exposure. I have bought the same brand of shampoo for the past 25 years and the same brand of facial cream for the past ten, and apart from other bare essentials (toothpaste and deodorant), I’m done. I have in effect opted out of some whole categories – make-up, more sophisticated hair care, treatments and styling and skin care (the latter, I realise now, is a particularly bit gap given that I am of the age when I should spending a good proportion of my disposable income on anti-ageing products. (For the record, I am currently relying on addressing wrinkles from within by eating lots of avocadoes).

But it turns out that personal care is a fascinating category which has some dynamics it shares with food and some which are quite specific to personal care. Let’s start with the similarity:

Personal care and food are both deeply influenced by the local cultural context. How and what we eat will, to a certain extent, vary depending on where we are: in the US, the UK and increasingly Europe, we shop from supermarkets and are happy to a certain amount of ready-made foods, going from dried pasta and bread all the way through to ready meals, and the food we eat will be quite diverse with many non-native items. In other countries, there are often stronger food cultures and more variety within that culture of food, for example think of all the different types of curry in Asia, but curry will still dominant, with fast food nibbling away at the edges.

In personal care too there are culturally-dependent preferences, for example beauty regimes in Asia are more complex and a lot of effort going into achieving fair skin. Interestingly one might argue, that just as with food, there is starting to be some globalisation/less variation across geographies. Think of the impact of social media on the convergence of aspirational aesthetics – everyone wants to look as lovely and beautiful as the Duchess of Cambridge or Meghan Markle etc.

However, there are important differences between the dynamics of food and personal care.

A key one is the direction of influence. In food, though we have ‘hot’ food cuisines, which become trendy for a year or two, for example it was Korean recently, but perhaps the crown has now gone to Scandi food, in general, food is becoming more ‘Westernised’. By this I mean that people are cooking less from scratch, there is greater consumption of processed and ready-prepared food, people’s food routines are changing with more snacking, whether to fill hunger gaps between meals or to replace meals entirely. And that’s not to mention the irresistible temptations of delights such as burgers, pasta and pizza.

In personal care, in particular beauty and skin care, the more interesting ‘stuff’ tends to be happening in the East first, in particular countries such as Korea and Japan, where people are willing to invest considerable time, money and effort into looking after their appearance. Fancy a 12-step skin-care regime anyone? It is from this region that the BB cream came, now a major staple in the beauty product world, as well as many other weird and wonderful products, such as syringe face-masks (not quite as dramatic as they sound!). So look East for beauty tips!

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March 21, 2018

Can graphic design save your life?

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

This is the arresting title of an exhibition I saw at the Wellcome Collection. It was a more interesting experience than I had expected, but I am not convinced I would answer ‘yes’ to the exhibition’s opening question.

Do you remember those iconic Silk Cut print adverts from the 1980s?

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Well, that’s what the exhibition started with – adverts to be admired for the way in which creativity was used to circumvent restrictions on advertising. This, in effect, is graphic design that brings you closer to the end of your life.

However, after this, the exhibits were centred on communications from the world of healthcare, and not just for patients, but also for would-be medics. The latter was covered by excerpts from text books and teaching manuals which were closer to works of art than academic material, as the below images suggest.

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What struck me most about the exhibits of medicines and other health products is the way in which they reflect the best in lowest common denominator communication approaches. The pill boxes below make it very clear what consumer need they are responding to. I have seen a similar approach used by smoothies and herbal infusions, which pitch specific products as the solution for a particular moment, whether it is the search for an invigorating uplift or a soothing experience.

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One area getting increasing interest as a way to increase public health is behavioural economics – for example making ‘good’ products easier to get hold of, whether this is about making them more visible or accessible on a shelf, or making the default option the ‘good’ one. Behavioural economics wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but graphic design could be used in partnership with behavioural design to up the ‘oomph’ factor of a piece of communication or instruction.

And finally, it’s worth noting that it was a refreshing experience to think about paper and packaging which didn’t come alive. If the exhibition was repeated in 10 years’ time, it would be about how augmented and virtual reality can save your life!

February 21, 2018

The internet is awesome!

I know that the online world is no longer new but I recently had an experience which reminded me of how *cool* some of the things you can do online are.

I should point out that my relationship with online ‘stuff’ is incredibly functionally driven. I have been an early and committed adopter of some internet possibilities – for example I started banking online twenty years ago, I have been regularly ordering all my groceries online for 12 years and now probably make over three-quarters of my other purchases online too. However, I haven’t been a major social media user (my life is too boring to describe to others) and still do very little on my phone (I just really prefer a proper keyboard and bigger screen).

So what are my internet ‘wow’ moments?

Well, the most recent one was when I finally decided to do something about getting rid of the two rabbit hutches that have been littering our garden unnecessarily for several months. The hutches are not in good condition and so not appropriate for selling on eBay. I just wanted to get rid of them but wasn’t sure they would fit in the boot of my rather small car to take to the tip. So after a quick search on Google, I found Freelywheely, which seemed much more friendly and easy to use than Freecyle, and within 15 minutes of the hutches being posted on their site, I was amazed to find I had requesters. By the end of the day, I had eight interested people, ready to drive almost an hour to pick up these rather battered hutches! And now they are gone, which is amazing. But perhaps I was just lucky and rabbit hutches are actually the most sought after freecycle item!

Rabbit hutch

Whilst I am at it, here are two other internet ‘wows’.

Second on my list is Airbnb, which I first starting using four years ago and now have clocked up 11 trips. I just really like the fact we can rent out something for the number of days we want and not stick to the old limited arrangement of a week and Saturday to Saturday or equivalent.

My third item is not so much an internet business but picks up on the transparency that the internet allows. I am someone who gets frustrated with waiting for things and I also like to know as much as possible about how long things might take. So the opportunity to track – in absurd detail – where your packages are is brilliant as far as I am concerned.

Delivery details

However, it does set expectations rather high. I have recently ordered items off Amazon which I think are being shipped directly from China, rather than coming from a reseller based in the UK. These items have what now seems like remarkably long delivery times of four weeks. In addition, once they are dispatched, there is no further information about the item until it appears in your letter box, more often than not several months late, by which time I have already complained and been reimbursed for said item! I’m waiting for everything to be RFID tagged so I track its global journey. That would definitely be awesome.

January 20, 2018

Sea blindness

This is the term that the chief of the Royal Navy has used to describe our attitude towards the great expanses of water that cover our planet. “We travel by cheap flights, not liners. The sea is the distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between take-off and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work.”

Not so – this is the driving force behind a recent read Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George, a comprehensive investigation into the world of container shipping. I have long had an unrequited respect and interest in shipping – it is one of the topics which can be endless source of fascination once you actually open your eyes to its importance. At the start of her book, George describes playing a numbers game on the train – you think through what goods will have been transported by sea and the answer is nearly everything : that man’s iPhone and headphones, his book printed in China, the fabric of the seats people are sitting on, the coffee the author is drinking, the fruit they are carrying in the bag and so forth.

The book itself is centred around a journey George made from Felixstowe to Singapore on a huge container ship – if the ship discharged its containers onto lorries, the line of traffic would be 50 miles long. However, the book is more than simply a description of this voyage- the author effectively uses it as a springboard to investigate many other weird and wonderful places, people and phenomena that connect into shipping. This takes her into spending a week on board an EU warship part of the international effort to counteract piracy off the Somali coast, accompanying the chaplain at the Seafarers’ Centre in Immingham, a port on the north-eastern coast of England, and even ringing up one of the ladies who knits the woolly hats that are distributed to sailors.

Despite this breadth of detail, I must confess that I finished the book with my curiosity not completely satisfied. I wanted more depth – to connect with what it really feels like to spend a month on one of these ships. What did she do each day, given that internet connection was sporadic, some of the crew didn’t talk much English and they weren’t really many of them? Come the end of her journey, George seems to be loath to leave the ship but I haven’t got enough of the experience to understand why this can be, given the potential for boredom hinted at earlier, coupled with the fact that she describes how vibrations from the ship’s engine (aside from any weather-related pitching and rolling) make sleep difficult, and she is vegetarian on a boat where the cook seems to struggle to understand what this means and there is very little fresh fruit and veg.

Perhaps what I was after was more poeticism. Just after finishing the book, I read a review of a more recent contribution which describes ten winter days on a Finnish icebreaker. According to the review, Horatio Clare, the author, writes “seeing silence”, and the ship itself seems to him no more than “the tip of a pencil line trailing off into empty space”. He is intoxicated by elemental extremes, dizzied, brought close to laughter. His dead mineral world—all crystalline ice and hard metal—stirs and quickens. Ice “sidles aboard, rinds the rails with icicles…is all but alive”. While down below, in the engine room, there grow “vines of copper piping and sprouting thermometers, the fuel pumps budded with bolts and flowering stopcocks”. There isn’t anything really like this in Deep Sea and Foreign Going. Perhaps just a few more pictures, and of better quality than the almost grainy, soul-dead black and white ones currently included, would have helped.

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Griping aside – I must make clear that the book is definitely worth reading, incredibly interesting and well written. There are a couple of stand-out bits and pieces.

The first is the little discussed but very real issue of noise pollution. This is discussed in a chapter George devotes to investigating whales and their interaction with all those ships trekking back and forth across the oceans. Rose goes to visit a laboratory in Cape Cod whose scientists aim to better understand how to protect the declining North Atlantic right whale population. We know that whales have been affected by hunting as well as chemical and material pollution. Well, it seems that the additional sounds we humans create will have noxious effects too. This is not just from the incredibly noisy engines of huge ships, but also from laying out cables on the sea bed, firing airguns for seismic surveys, fishermen sending out pings for echolocation to find fish, whilst the military deploy sonar. Sometimes the effect of all this is tangible: forced change of habit to flee the sound, whilst military sonar induces the bends in dolphins and whales so that they arrive on the beach with blood on their brains. Sometimes, it is hard to work out what the impact might be, but one researcher found that a quiet and still sea resulted in much lower levels of stress hormones present in whales compared to days of noise.

The second picks up on the harsh and potentially dangerous livelihoods of those who work on container ships. There are the obvious negatives, such as being away from loved ones for long stretches of time, but this is exacerbated by the fact financial pressure often forces these individuals to all too swiftly sign up for another passage. In addition, a large proportion of those who make up crews come from parts of Asia and get their work through middle men whom they don’t want to annoy by refusing jobs. Then you have to factor in the risk of accidents from storms and the bigger worry of piracy, which becomes particularly challenging when it is not clear who has responsibility for looking after the workers when these problems arise. Is it their own country? But their own country would argue it is the company employing them, coming from another country? Or is it the flag under which they are flying, or the territory in whose water the incident took place? It isn’t clear and that’s why it is often takes a long time to get kidnaps resolved. Despite this, and the fact conditions all round can be compared to a sweatshop, the Fair Trade Association’s comment is of one defeat: “Incorporating shipping requirements into our standards and certification processes would add to auditing costs.”

The third and final point is that there is no mention of the possibility that the flows of good might possibly start to change. In the general media, there has been much hype around the potential for 3D manufacturing to make near-shoring a real possibility, whilst a shift to services as well as intangibles (think of streamed media replacing DVDs and CDs) means that less ‘stuff’ needs to be shunted around the world. But given the volumes currently involved, I am not sure a marked shift will happen any time soon. Until then, we need to remember to be less sea blind.

December 19, 2017

No, you don’t see it

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What do you make of the rather enigmatic image above? Any clues as to what it might represent or where it could have been taken?

Well, it’s a photo I took from a visit to the Perfume exhibition on at Somerset House over the summer – which turned out to be surprisingly interesting and entertaining. Going round the exhibition made me realise how much of a construct perfume is – an insubstantial experience onto which we can overlay our own memories, prejudices, preferences etc. Obviously, this trait is exploited in order to create branded perfumes, where the constructs have been determined by the marketing bods at big commercial perfume houses.

Looking at the packaging used for perfume bottles over the past couple of decades makes clear how perfume is ‘of its time’ – a thing created for ‘then’ . A bottle from the 1950s looks as though it is a prop for one of the early seasons of Mad Men, whilst the ck one bottle appears pale and dated.

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The only bottle on display to stand the test of time is the one below – quite resolutely a timeless classic.

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The rest of the exhibition was organised through ten rooms, each of which ‘housed’ a scent created by a different modern perfumer, which we were encouraged to ponder over and capture our thoughts on using special little notes postcards.

What was most interesting was how far the set-up / design of the room influenced my interpretation of the smell. Some rooms were almost heavy handed in how they introduced the scent: one had a film of laundry flapping on a washing line against a blue sky with seats draped with white sheets.

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Others gave more clues but still left you space to create stories. For this scent, there two couches decorated with rather florid fabric. Was this meant to be a psychotherapist’s study? I could easily imagine a Brooklyn lady in her late 50s, with frizzy black/grey hair, big earrings, hundreds of books lining the walls, and her heavy scent in the background.

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And what would you make of the below?

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It was all too easy to fear the worst and I hesitated to approach and sniff. It turned out to be fine: a rather sickening, cloying smell, but distinctly more in the realms of perfume as oppose to just bodily odours.

There was one particular scent where the set-up was ambiguous. The friend with whom I visited the exhibition picked up on the black leather pouches and dark wood and thought of a boxing gym, and found the smell deeply masculine and sexy. But it turned out the intimate closed space and heavy sandalwood scent was meant to recall confession boxes!

These different scents were created by what would be described (unavoidably!) as the ‘new generation’ of perfumers – those who are ready to break with convention and take a different and often unorthodox approach to scent. Though I may use a mocking tone, on reflection, it did strike me that perfume and commercial scents are really still very conservative. Gender-neutral perfume actually isn’t really that ground-breaking; read the below blurb introducing a more ‘cutting edge’ perfume.

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Such perfumes come across as experimental, deliberating courting controversy, perhaps comparable to how art behaved a century ago with artists such as Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and making it into an artwork called ‘Fountain’. I wonder how the world of perfume will settle down once it has got past this rebellious phase.

In the interim, we can enjoy the inventiveness. Fancy a perfume inspired by Nutella?

Or theme park rides? You can even get the smelly postcard of it.

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November 19, 2017

By floral design

Can you think of any place or occasion when you have been able to go into a shop and order the same thing that you found there six years ago? Well, this is what I was able to do when I went to Laura Ashley to get some fabric to replace some curtains, once gently glowing and resplendent, but now sadly frayed and tatty.

Making this purchase gave me the opportunity to experience some more of what Laura Ashley is about. To be honest, I must confess that I am surprised it is able to survive in a world where lots of design is about either minimalist clean-lines Scandi or cosy hygge-inspired Scandi. A quick check online reveals that it is struggling and looking for better opportunities in emerging markets where British floral fancy might have more appeal.

The main part of my time in the store was spent getting through the process required to sign up to the store card. I only consented as it seemed silly to throw away the opportunity to get a 10% discount, but it ended up being rather complicated. How come? Well, I blame the checks and balances put in place to ensure consumers are not being mis-sold. Legal requirements they may be, but from a customer experience perspective, they are not positive. This is why:

  • I had to watch a video which explained my rights and what I was signing up to. But as this was a shop, I effectively had to sit at the desk in the corner where they check orders. It just felt really odd and uncomfortable.
  • Worse still was providing all the personal information needed to apply for a store card. It wasn’t just stating one’s age but also one’s annual household income – all on the shop floor.
  • Doing the above and filling in lots of forms end up taking 30 minutes. I am not sure it is worth spending half an hour to get back £20. It raises the question of what is the balance of saving time vs money…

And obviously, I cancelled the card as soon as I got home. It had not been even explained to me that there were incentives beyond the initial purchase discount.

But all that being said, to go back to my opening question, I was really rather pleased that Laura Ashley are ‘consistent’ in their stock. Fingers crossed my duck egg Villandry will still be there when I need to replace curtains again in the years ahead.

Laura Ashley

October 18, 2017

Domestic time travel

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:05 am
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I work from home and thus tend to think rather a lot about domestic spaces. So perhaps it’s no surprise that my latest blog post here will relate my experience of going to a museum which is all about homes through the ages.

A couple of months ago, I finally had the chance to visit the Geffrye Museum. It’s in achingly cool Shoreditch, which in reality means tramping along very busy and grimy roads as the public transport connections are rather limited. The museum itself is situated in restored and refashioned almhouses and an oasis of calm and greenery in the midst of the urban bustle.

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Unlike many museums and exhibitions, which seem to eschew putting things forward in chronological sequence in favour of following themes, the Geffyre Museum solidly set out its rooms in historical order. We travel from the 1600s up to the twentieth century, going through halls, parlours, living rooms and kitchen-dining rooms.  Below are a selection of images from these different eras.

 

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As I walked through the rooms, admiring how our tastes in wood, flooring material, upholstery and other such delights have changed over time, a number of observations struck me.

In reality, I doubt whether many houses would have looked as laid out in the museum at the period specified. Furniture tends to hang around for a long time. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I have a table and chairs that belonged to my husband’s grandmother, as well as items that have only appeared within the last year or two. The reality of homes is that they are less aesthetically coherent with a mish mash of items from many different eras.

The impact of changing patterns in work have fed through into how spaces are used and owned within the house. Over the past century or two, as the idea of going to a factory or office for employment (rather than running one’s business or trade from home) has become more common, it means that living rooms have become more ‘feminised’. They became more clearly places where women and children spent most of the time with room for games and instruments, and more ‘cosy’.

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There is lots of discussion about the growing importance of China on the world stage today – think not just of its economic might as the second largest global economy, but also its growing political leadership, for example in committing to the Paris climate change Accord whilst America has not. It was interesting to see evidence of when China was also influential earlier. However, it was seen more as an exotic place full of interesting and beautiful art, culture and history. In the early eighteenth century, drinking tea from China was a novelty and also a luxury. You would not find the big clunky mugs from which we slurp our ‘builders’, but instead tiny porcelain bowls and saucers to make the precious drink go further. Cupboards were inspired with intricate ‘Oriental’ designs made to look like Japanese lacquer (but actually made in Europe).

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Perhaps what was most distinctive about the museum was the fact its focus was on middle class households. When we admire rooms and furniture from the past, it tends to be within the setting of big posh stately homes and thus reflecting the lifestyles of the very rich and very privileged. Instead, the Geffyre Museum lets us see what those in the middle experienced. Though you don’t get the sumptuous décor and extraordinary attention to personal comforts, as for instance found at Eltham, looking round is more engaging as it is more accessible.

I wonder what ‘my era’ will look like when it is put up to visit?!

September 18, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part II

In the second part of these two posts on health/science books I have recently read, I will focus on Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I was particularly interested in getting to grips with this book as there is lots of chatter about genes. I have become aware of the fact that it is all too easy to merrily throw on some bullet points about genome testing, personalised health plans and diets etc, but what does this actually mean?

In reading Gene, I was struck by the fact that in order to understand how our thinking about genes has developed over time, we need to go back and look at how science explains differences between and among ourselves and also other living organisms. Perhaps, therefore not surprisingly, we spend some time with Darwin, as well as looking back at Greek philosophers/scientists, whose perspectives were always, surprisingly insightful/provocative, despite they effectively ‘knew’ less than we do now.

There was a section on the interest in eugenics in the US in the 1920s. Reading this made me realise how, when we look back in time, we often make simplistic assumptions about what ideas to associate with particular eras. Eugenics – that was obviously the handiwork of those nasty Nazis – well, not just them it seems. A number of medical professionals and politicians in the US were determined to stop ‘bad heredity’ and to set up ‘eugenic sterilizations of the feeble-minded’. In 1927, the state of Indiana passed a law to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’ and other states followed with even stricter laws to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior. This preoccupation with the right heredity was reflected in popular culture at the time, for example, by the late 1920’s, premarital genetic-fitness tests were being widely advertised to the American public. However, it is important to remember DNA testing, as we know it, had not yet been uncovered. Instead, they consisted of assessments of family histories to pick up on incidences of mental retardation, epilepsy, deafness, dwarfism, blindness etc.

It was not until the 1950’s that the chemical structure of the gene was uncovered. I find it fascinating that so much had already happened, eg laws instituted, as described above, around a part of ourselves – the genome – which we had not really ‘seen’ as such and did not know really how it worked. As a child of the modern era, I have the naïve and simplistic assumption that we know everything before we decide to ‘use’ it!

Reading Gene made me realise that there in fact is much more uncertainty around the impact genes have than perhaps comes across in popular media and culture. One aspect to this is that there still seems to be much life in the nature versus nurture debate. This is down to the fairly new area within gene studies of epigenetics. As explained here, “Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone’s taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren’t as important….But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited, just like some highlighting still shows up when text is photocopied.” So it seems looking at what it’s in your genome will only tell you so much; the messiness of real life has an important impact.

Another angle is the fact that only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. As a reviewer observed, “Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. … Some scientists are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place.”

It makes me wonder what Gene – An Intimate History would include if it was written a hundred years from now?

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August 14, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part I

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:48 pm
Tags: , , ,

Health and wellbeing are topics that you cannot ignore if interested in consumers and societies. At the level of the individual, feeling good in mind and body is now often more than just not being ill but part of a broader aspiration to positive health and a way of showing that we can invest time and money in taking care of ourselves, important both in developed and developing economies. And from a societal perspective, there are important new public health issues rising up the agenda: obesity and the associated conditions, and an ageing population to pick up on two of perhaps the most obvious issues.

It was these thoughts in mind that I decided to read two books which aim to tell their readers more about areas in health where there is a lot of energy and excitement. I started with Gut by Giulia Enders and then launched into Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I will discuss my thoughts on each in a pair of posts.

I must confess to not having a great first impression of Gut – thanks to the book cover. As you can see from the image below, in the edition I read, there is a large photo of the attractive young blond German scientist who wrote the book. I cannot recall having come across other science books, or indeed any type of book bar autobiographies, which put their author so prominently on the front.

The impression of youthfulness continues. The inside blurb opens with the following perhaps somewhat patronising sentence (my italics), “In this charming book, young scientist Giulia Enders takes us on a fascinating tour of our insides.” My more objective verdict of youthfulness/immaturity of thought comes from the relatively superficial/narrow scope of discussion: Gut gives us only an overview of the basic science behind the organ and our current understanding of what is going on. Gene is very different – deliberately so – as the latter sets itself up as a history and thus has a very broad scope in terms of chronology, revealing along the way changing cultural attitudes as well as the scientific discoveries linked to the genome. I would have liked to know more what ‘we’ (in a societal/cultural sense) think about how to understand the gut and what it does for us as much knowing the hard facts.

For example, I would have been interested in knowing more about how other cultures ‘engage’ with their gut and how their diets intuitively work with guts better. For example, I know that in Turkey, women will often drink a tiny bit of apple cider vinegar before their meal and kefir, fermented milk drinks, are an important of a region’s traditional cuisine. Both these products will encourage the development of gut flora, but how and why did these customs come about? And what else is there like this?

And we find out that there is scientific validation for relying on ‘gut instinct’ – we are simply reflecting how closely our guts and are brains are entwined. The gut is connected to our main brain via the vagus nerve, a superfast broadband connection along which messages travel in both directions. But it would have been good to know more about how this metaphor arose.

I obtained my copy of Gut from the library but I wonder on what shelf it would be found as its classification is not obvious. The blurb describes it as an ‘entertaining, informative health handbook’ – a bit of a fudge if you ask me.  Is it a popular science book or is a self-help book? For a clearer example of the latter, look no further than the latest tome from Dr Michael Moseley (of 5:2 diet fame).

However, despite the above observations, Gut did inspire me to action. I have been tucking into the below on a regular basis. Not sure I can tell the difference yet!

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