Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: March 2012

The Breakfast Conspiracy II

I have long been sceptical of the importance of breakfast and one of my more infamous early posts, long before the current incarnation of the site, was that setting out The Breakfast Conspiracy.  While intended solely as a humorous jab at those who (a) knocked my eating habits; or (b) subscribed to conspiracy theories, there has always been something unsettling about the way people mindlessly repeat the “most important meal” mantra with no explanation, yet a fervour bordering on the religious. I mean it practically screams conspiracy. The truth, I knew, was out there.

Recently, tumbling down one of those impossible-to-avoid Internet research rabbit-holes, I discovered some revealing information.  Our story begins with Edward Bernays, whom those in advertising will know as “the father of public relations” and a pioneer in propaganda. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and combined his uncle’s psychoanalytical ideas with the crowd psychology theories of Le Bon and Trotter.

Bernays’s belief was that the public democratic judgement was unreliable and had to be “guided from above”. Of course, this “guidance” was primarily in the interest of the corporations that hired him, like the American Tobacco Company. He viewed the public as a “herd that needed to be led” and, more worryingly, described his opinion-moulding techniques as the “engineering of consent”.

What does any of this have to do with breakfast, you may be wondering? Well, one of Bernays’s less prominent clients was the Beech-Nuttagum Packing Company, which was experiencing serious financial losses due to its relatively new food product, bacon, not selling particularly well to an American public used to eating very little in the morning.

And so Bernays, using the psychological techniques he had acquired, approached a medical doctor and asked a few innocuous, leading questions along the following lines:

  1. Does the human body expend energy in the night during sleep?
  2. Does the human body need energy during the day to complete day-to-day tasks, labour, etc.?
  3. Would it make sense to eat a hearty breakfast as opposed to a light breakfast in order to provide the body with energy?

Having secured one positive response, he circulated it around 5,000 doctors, of whom 4,500 were willing to support the opinion. This was then fed to the newspapers as health advice: 4,500 doctors agree a hearty breakfast provides the energy needed to sustain activity. Of course, bacon and eggs* were subtly suggested as a part of that meal, and his client’s financial woes were history. Meanwhile, this spurious but highly profitable medical advice morphed into the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Indeed, it is now so widely repeated that the corporations with a vested interest in our breakfasting barely need to “remind” us themselves.

*Do not misinterpret this as a knock against bacon and eggs: they are fantastic foods for brunch. Or as a hangover cure. But then it is medicine.

Three Blind Mice

Humans and our ancestors have been using tools for some two and a half million years.  Over that time I think we have earned the right to be picky not just about their utility, but just how they sit in our hands.  Certainly, I have always been abnormally selective in the cutlery I feel comfortable using (at home anyway, I can generally suppress it when outside): it must be slender, smoothly curved with a balanced weight distribution.  The reason, it eventually dawned on me, is that subconsciously I see cutlery as an extension of my fingers, giving rise to certain preconceptions about how it should feel and respond.  It also explains my affinity for chopsticks which are essentially a direct extension of two fingers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am similarly specific about my mice, being tools many of us spend hours each day using both at work and home. I recently described purchasing a new mouse as like acquiring a new limb, an idea which seemed to resonate with several people. A good mouse is a perfect example of how, when form follows functional ergonomics, a thing of beauty is created. I currently use three mice, with different choices behind each one.

The bedroom: my desktop is primarily a gaming machine and unsurprisingly sports a gaming mouse, a Razer DeathAdder. Razer understands that while there are technological requirements consistent across all gaming mice (high resolution sensor, fast response time), an individual’s mouse grip affects ergonomic considerations, as they distinguish between the most common palm grip, the claw grip and the fingertip grip. My gaming style is a claw grip which I find lends itself to swifter reactions. The result is that I wanted a mouse with an arched body for support and lipped edges to it buttons to avoid my fingers sliding off the sides (essentially concave buttons rather than a mouse’s typical convex surface). Unlike my other mice, this one is still wired to avoid the risk of running out of charge mid-game.

The Office: Conversely, at work I adopt a palm grip for comfort over long periods. When replacing my work mouse recently, I briefly considered one of the new wave of multitouch mice with the neat swiping gestures they bring. However it became clear that far too many ergonomic compromises have been made in all the touch mice on the market. Instead a large “handshake” mouse would maximise comfort and the Logitech MX Performance is the easy choice.  Its perfectly constructed sweeping body both feels and looks fantastic, while its freely spinning scroll wheel is a life-saver when dealing with long documents – a single flick of the wheel sends pages flying past. Despite its size, the mouse is surprisingly lightweight, requiring minimal effort to use for long stretches. Sold as rechargeable, opening it up reveals it actually runs off an AA battery, shipping with an eneloop (Sanyo’s new rechargeable range with a greatly reduced self-discharge rate, with which I have replaced all my AA batteries).

The Living Room: While my HTPC is primarily controlled with the same universal remote as the television to which it is connected, it runs Windows 7 and is capable of other functions that necessitate using a mouse from the sofa.  The Logitech MX Air is ideal as, in addition to functioning as a normal mouse when on a flat surface, it is gyroscopic so can also be picked up and used in the air.  Rather than waving it around in an exhausting manner, it is best used by simply angling it in the appropriate direction with a small movement of the wrist. Given that it is held more like a remote than a typical mouse, its weight distribution is crucial, sitting comfortably in a rounded ball that fits the palm of your hand with just the slender buttons at the front.

Dunbar’s Reminder

A few days ago I came across a fluff piece in which a freelance writer attempted to disprove Dunbar’s number using his facebook friends. Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships one can maintain, and lies somewhere between 100 and 230.

I have no problem with Dunbar’s number: it always sounded about right to me, though I suspected that approaching the maximum limit might devalue the quality of the much of smaller number of close friendships. A quick trawl through my 500-odd facebook “friends” narrows the current active friendships to a little under 150. Add in a few friends and family not on facebook and I fall pretty squarely in Dunbar’s expected range.

What the exercise highlighted is not some shocking revelation about how I don’t actually maintain all those facebook friendships, nor how I have this vast graveyard of ostensibly dead friendships — that list remains a valuable index of contacts through which it is much easier to get in touch with someone should it later be useful (and the ability to hide updates from individuals means regular “culls” are no longer entirely necessary). The real lesson for me was that there were a handful of people hidden in that list with whom I really did want to get in touch but, without having seen their names, the thought might never have occurred. Perhaps, rather than an act of social vanity, it is an exercise I ought to conduct more frequently in order to prevent some people falling through the cracks. After all, Dunbar might have set an upper limit, but he offers no guarantee that those social relationships will be the right ones. So I wonder: if you have more than 230 facebook friends, who might be hiding in yours?

Meanwhile, if I’m running at roughly capacity, that also means anyone who wants to join my friendship group (for reasons I cannot begin to fathom) will probably need to kill off an existing member. Friends, consider this a heads up. Don’t blame me, blame the evolutionary limitations of my neocortex.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2023 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑