Attention, please

Leave a reply

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Is Google making us stupid?

To make this author’s point for him, I didn’t finish reading that article. I was researching something else, and it was one of about five open tabs I was skimming simultaneously.

Yesterday I read a fantastic interview on the Spinoff about why our political system is broken — policies tinker around the edges in neat soundbites rather than tackling actual structural change, which is not only seen as too big to manage, but too hard for the public to comprehend in a Stuff article or a news segment.

But the world is complex. Our problems are complex.

In my work, we take difficult government information and make it easier to understand and act on. Clients and users and user-experience researchers tend to think this means we can make it simple. We can simplify, but this type of information fundamentally isn’t simple.

After user testing, testers frequently used to come back to me with, “users said it was too long and hard to understand. We recommend you make it shorter.”

This is why we try our hardest to always be involved in planning and executing testing now — it’s valid feedback, but for government entitlements and processes, it’s also useless. We’ve already made it as short as we can: whatever’s left is the information required to do the thing. There are ways of cutting it up and displaying it and phrasing it to make it easier for most people to find only the pieces they need (which is where we try to focus testing), but until someone gives us leave to rewrite legislation along with the website, the information required is the information required.

Recently, we’ve had several meetings with clients’ senior managers about syndicating content. This is an idea that goes around government every few years before sinking back into the depths of 5-year technology strategies. It’s a great idea, in theory: rewrite your web content so you can serve compact, distinct “bites” of information on any site or platform (the word “snackable” was used repeatedly).

The thing is, I’ve never really seen it work in government. I’d argue it’s never really worked anywhere other than a google results page. If your content boils down into a three-line snack, it’s not content — it’s a fact.

There might be a place for this, if it’s ever worth the technology that would be required to centralise it: “The GST rate is 15%”, “Daylight savings changes on Sunday 24 September”, “Student loan repayments are 10% of your before-tax income”. (Also, Google is already doing this, and with reasonable accuracy.)

Anything beyond that would have to be so simplistic as to be functionally useless. We already try to write page summaries that say something definite about the content of the page, so our best suggestion is probably to just syndicate your page summaries where they fit and provide a link to the main content… then fix that main content as best you can. There will never be a way to claim paid parental leave or figure out your child support in three lines.

There will also never be a plan to end child poverty or a way to grasp the impacts of climate change that can be conveyed in a news break or a paragraph you can share on Facebook. I worry the internet is not only rewiring our brains to read less deeply and and spend less time thinking about what we’ve read (I did read some of the article), but to expect that everything we need to know can be rolled up into a Wikipedia page summary — and that it’s okay to form opinions and make choices and vote based only on that summary.

For anyone who’s interested, here are two things we’ve worked on lately that experiment with syndicating or bite-sizing content, with reasonable success:


And anyway, Mozart died at 35.

Leave a reply

Twitter is now the place I go when I need something to make me furious at everything. Today I read an entire thread of men arguing over why work/life balance is a myth, and marathon hours and working weekends are fundamentally necessary if you want to be a success.

Look at Elon Musk, they said. Look at Mozart.

Newsflash, fellas: you’re not Mozart. Your work is probably not that important. And even if it is, if you’re doing it 12 or 14 hours a day you’re probably doing it badly.

Go the fuck home and see your kids.

Human brains aren’t designed to do creative or complex work for 12 hours straight. Long before you burn out, you’re going to stop doing good work. And your wife probably hates you.

How do these attitudes come about? There’s a wealth of evidence that extra hours of work don’t add extra productivity. The eight-hour workday is even based on maximum productivity for a factory assembly line — I’d argue the maximum creative output in a day is closer to four or five hours (with some padding for admin and meetings and eating sushi).

Your brain needs to rest to work creatively. Work/life balance isn’t important just because, you know, life is your actual life, but because without downtime your brain can’t process information and make new connections and break down all the things you’ve fed it into delicious spontaneous idea-mulch.

It’s also a socially dangerous argument to have. If it’s necessary to abandon your personal life to succeed at work, you either can’t have a family, are fucked if you already do, or you’re assuming you can dump all of your real-life responsibilities onto your partner forever in order to do your work.

I know I’m very privileged to not have to work in a 9-5 at-the-desk office environment, but here’s how I do my best work:

  1. Do a couple of hours of focused work.
  2. Take a walk, do a load of washing, knit, stare at the shops, eat chips, etc.
  3. Do another couple of hours of focused work.
  4. Stop working and hang out with my family.
  5. Sleep.
  6. Get in the shower in the morning and find a solution to whatever I was working on the day before waiting for me.
  7. Repeat.

I’ve yet to find a work problem that wasn’t solved faster by going to sleep than by continuing to try and actively beat it into submission after doing so had already failed. My brain is a wonderful and amazing creature that will come up with solutions to things without my help — if I let it.

The more I do creative work the more I realise that the time I don’t spend working is as important as the time I do.

I might send you an email at 9pm, but it’s not because I kept working until 9 — it’s because I went and made dinner and put Nico to bed and then sat on the couch staring at The Get Down and suddenly my brain was like “HEY, I GOT THE ANSWER!” and I got up and wrote it down.

Or The Get Down finished and because I’d had a few hours off the thing suddenly wasn’t as hard as it had seemed at 4pm.

And in the meantime, I also got to live my actual life.

Sixtyproof limit how much we take on not just because we have small children and partners and we like to interact with them (and occasionally also our friends and pets and television sets) but because we do better work that way — you can have 25 quality hours of work out of me a week, or 50 terrible ones.

Anyway, this whole post is a nice way of letting my clients know I’m going to start charging them for showers and Netflix.



Leave a reply

And just like that, he’s one. A whole year old. Yesterday I looked at the first photos we took of him — that wrinkled, purple, cone-headed little beauty with his treacle-slow limbs and his crooked stare. He looks exactly the same and nothing at all alike.

A year on, he needs a haircut. His hair is blonder than expected, and curling from the bottom while the top still sticks straight up, waving in the wind like down. He has seven teeth. He’s working on running and jumping and dancing and clapping. This morning, Diogo rubbed my arm and then Nico reached over and rubbed it too. Last night we discovered that if we give him the cloth, he’ll try and wipe down his highchair himself.

He doesn’t say anything but “mama” and “dada” and they both mean all sorts of things, but he’s having a concerted effort at “hello” (because everything from the remote to a stray sock is a phone this week), and it’s obvious he understands at least some of what we say now. (“Take that to Papai” is my new favourite phrase, especially with the most painful of his books.)

He’s happy pretty much all the time and almost all of his favourite toys are books — both these things make me feel like we must be doing something right. He loves people, animals, his two days at daycare, climbing onto and into anything dangerous, and pointing at things and saying “da!”. He’s hilarious and exhausting and charming and exasperating in equal measure.

Every night we lie in bed and say to each other “I want him to stay this big forever” and “I can’t wait to see what he does next”.

He’s pretty much a total fucking delight.

Happy first birthday, Nico pico bumble bum. I can’t wait to see what you do next.


Hard work

Leave a reply

Lately I feel like I’ve been hearing people say “it’s hard work, but it’s rewarding” a lot. Or “it’s hard work, but it’s worth it”. Maybe it’s because I’m (for obvious reasons) talking to a lot of mums about mumming. But I’ve also heard it about writing, about sport or music, about craft and hobbies.

It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.


Does that say something about our culture, that we think hard work and reward are somehow mutually exclusive? Has anything ever been truly rewarding that wasn’t also hard work? I’ve enjoyed watching The Crown this week, but I wouldn’t describe myself as having been rewarded by it. Entertained, yes. Occasionally charmed or delighted. Even educated, on the occasions I felt compelled to look up what really happened and acquire myself some history. But I don’t feel like it could reward me, because I didn’t put in any effort.

It occupied me. I wasn’t occupied with it, or preoccupied by it — I was occupied, in the passive tense. My eyes consumed pretty dresses while my mouth drank tea.

Why don’t we say “it’s hard work, so it’s rewarding”? So it’s worth it?

Surely everything that’s worthwhile is hard? Takes work? Have we broken down somewhere, with this idea that leisure should be easy, and that hard work and responsibility outside of paid work are to be avoided at all costs, or prefaced with “but”?

Is it because so much of the paid work we do feels worthless?

Children are hard work, obviously. So are dogs. If you want to look at it that way, so is baking. Creating. Writing. Gardening. Exercising. Cooking. All things we’ve made easier with technology and outsourcing and money used to be hard work. (And that’s awesome, believe me. I’m eternally grateful that I can tell a machine to wash our clothes, instead of spending all day scrubbing at the side of the river.)

But without hard work, what’s left? What are we doing now with all the time we’re saving buying pesto in a jar and hiring people to mow our lawns? Watching more TV?

My buddy Brock and I were talking the other night about what our lives will look like once the robots take our jobs. Not about the UBI or how we’ll work (for those who will), but what our leisure time looks like. Do we take the opportunity to do uniquely human things — invent, explore, create — or do we keep barrelling down the track we seem to be on, consuming more and more stuff with less and less effort? Do we return to playing and making and building things for ourselves, or do we spend our time playing VR war games while the robots (or the very poor) clean our houses and make our processed food tubes?

Brock made the great point that the way we work now — exchanging our time for cash that we spend on things that save us time — is a blip in history. This model has only existed for a couple of hundred years, and far less for women and minorities. That’s not to say there was some golden age of meaningful work (except perhaps for white dudes who own land, but that’s been true throughout history), just that the system is new, and we’re not tied to it. We can reinvent it, like work and family have been reinvented countless times before.

I think a lot while out in my garden about the ridiculous inefficiency of spending my time trying to grow food. If, as I’ve read on the interwebs, we should take our billable value at work and apply it to chores at home in order to decide whether to outsource them, I’m baking bread and growing carrots at hundreds of times the cost of a trip to the supermarket.

But although my time is valuable, I don’t believe my time is money. That seems, to me, to be the most insidious end point of our everything-is-a-business culture. My life is my life. My time is my time. It has value, but that value should surely be in how I choose to spend it: in the effort and satisfaction of accomplishing things (work or personal) and in my relationships.

I can absolutely pay a supermarket for a loaf of bread and save myself the effort of making it myself, but in return I spend the time I would have spent kneading and mixing in thoughtful (or, more often, deliciously thoughtless) contemplation sitting in a metal box, and then walking through a bigger metal box, to give someone money I had to spend time earning in order to save myself the time I’m now wasting in the car and at the supermarket.

I worry that the world is trying to convince us that things that are not only simple but enjoyable are too hard to contemplate doing for ourselves, while anything that’s actually hard — no matter how worthwhile — is a drag or a burden on our lives, rather than the whole point of them.

Anyway. Goals for 2017: watch less TV, buy less stuff, and work harder at things that aren’t work.


Rogue One

Leave a reply

Dear Hollywood:

I enjoyed Rogue One. It was a good time. But, yet a-fucking-gain, can I just say: making your main character a woman doesn’t mean you’ve met your quota and don’t need to include any other women in your whole movie.

How is this still so hard for you? 52% of the population are women-people. We’re really everywhere now — just all over the place, doing all sorts of things. Your movie is set in space, in the future. It’s probably safe to assume there are some women-identifying folks in future space. They probably even do things like fly planes and shoot blasters, because you don’t really need a penis to operate either of those.

Of the thousands of people who appeared in that movie: in crowds and villages and bases and meetings and squadrons, I counted 11 who were discernibly female. 11. And that includes the main character, her mother, and the cameo at the end. Other than them, I saw two rebel leader types, two rebel pilots, and four others in the background of the big resistance gathering.

Everyone on the side of the empire appeared to be male. Admittedly, you can’t tell a stormtrooper’s gender, but every visible officer/bureaucrat/worker was a dude. All the engineers were men. Everyone who volunteered for the rebel crew. The six visible women in that big resistance gathering is not equality or representation: it’s the most pitiful of token efforts. In order to make crowd scenes with so few women, you surely have to really be trying. We are, again, 52% of the humans. We tend to just sort of crop up when humans are gathered.

And apart from the little critter with the glasses in The Force Awakens, have any of the non-human characters been women? And, while we’re at it, why do all the robots need to sound like dudes?

In a movie that did a great job with casting minorities and generally being a good time without being batshit insane, it’s disappointing. And frankly, I want to watch a movie where I don’t have to do this. It’s distracting and it makes me angry, and then I hiss things at Brazil under my breath and ruin the mood for everyone around me.

It’s not that hard, surely. Just look at all the people you’ve got standing around and talking and doing stuff, and unless their genitalia is actively necessary to the plot, make half of them women.

Seriously. Just do that. Please. Because half of us are.



Leave a reply

My last post was pretty depressing, so I thought I might follow it up with a summary of the things we’re doing now to lessen our impact on the planet, and where I think we can do better.


I’ve been guilty lately of getting too hung up on doing everything right, and that’s silly. If everyone made some better choices, we’d be in a much better position than if a handful of people disappear off the grid and stop washing their hair. So I do what I can, when I can, and try to be mindful of what I’m buying.

In general, we try to:

  • choose brands that are made locally or in New Zealand. This supports jobs here, and the profits stay within NZ, instead of ending up in the pockets of the 1% overseas
  • choose fair trade options whenever possible
  • choose products that aren’t full of chemicals or made of plastic when there’s an alternative
  • choose products made of recycled or sustainable materials
  • choose organic when there’s an organic option — the science still seems to be confused about whether organic is much better for you, and the weird rules of what qualifies as organic mean it’s often still contributing to soil depletion and nitrogen leaching, but I’d rather put my money towards increasing demand for organic methods than towards supporting current commercial practises.

Buying free-range, fair trade, local or organic is more expensive, but as folks on a decent wage, I feel like we have an obligation to pay for it. Not only is that what things actually cost when the environment and workers aren’t being exploited, but they’ll get cheaper and more abundant as demand for them goes up.

That said, we can afford it. I understand if you can’t. But I’d ask you to consider whether paying an extra $2 for a packet of bacon is really unaffordable, or if perhaps you could just eat less bacon? Or sacrifice a packet of biscuits for the pleasure of eating really good food that didn’t cause appalling suffering?

(I’m talking here to people in roughly the same social position as us — the appalling poverty levels in NZ are a whole other conversation, and I’m certainly not asking anyone raising a family on minimum wage to do anything but whatever they need to to keep their household fed.)


I know people don’t like hearing about the treatment of commercial food animals, but I think if making the choice to eat meat, you should have to be aware of what you’re choosing. The way pigs and chickens, in particular, are raised for food would be an actual crime if done to a cat or a dog. You’d go to jail. Their lives, conditions and deaths are HORRIFIC.

And if that doesn’t convert you, how about this: they’re also sick. Their conditions are so appalling that producers pump them full of antibiotics to keep them alive and functional enough to get to the age of slaughter. You’re eating all those antibiotics too.

Cows in New Zealand have better lives than beef cows in the US, but intensive dairy and beef farming is still destroying our water and wasting untold amounts of resources. There are a lot of places on this planet that aren’t suitable for growing crops but can be grazed by ruminants, so I’ve decided that I’m comfortable continuing to eat meat that’s been ethically farmed — but I want to eat a lot less of it.

What we’re doing now:

  • starting our grocery shop at Commonsense Organics and Moreish for meat and going to New World for whatever’s left over, rather than the other way around (this is a bit more expensive, but since we don’t really buy processed food, it’s not a huge amount more)
  • eating at least two vegetarian meals a week, and only one involving red meat
  • only ever buying free-range (and organic if possible) pork, chicken and eggs
  • using the BestFishGuide app to choose more sustainable fish
  • taking our own bags to the supermarket
  • composting (we have regular compost and a worm farm)
  • make everything we can ourselves (I bake our bread, make our muesli and do all our baking. We don’t really eat anything from a packet except chocolate… this does take time, but a) I love to cook and I’m at home anyway and b) it actually doesn’t take THAT long, and the taste and nutrition benefits are more than enough to make up for the effort)
  • working on expanding the garden and improving the soil, planting lots of bee-friendly flowers and looking after the fruit trees I planted this winter.

What I want to do next:

  • start getting an organic vege box delivery until the garden is producing better
  • get the garden and fruit trees to the point where we’re growing most of our fruit and veges
  • increase the amount of vegetarian meals we eat until meat is a treat rather than an expectation
  • start only ordering free-range meat when out (I’ve been intending to do this for ages and always seem to be able to forget it when it comes time to order… mostly I think because I’m scared it’s going to stop me getting bacon at most of my favourite cafes)
  • get chickens to provide us eggs and fertiliser
  • have a crack at ordering raw milk
  • add yoghurt and fresh cheese into the regular baking repertoire
  • take my freaking reusable coffee cups with me when I go for coffee in the morning!


What we’re doing now:

  • using cloth nappies at home during the day (I bought Pea Pods based on my research before Nico was born, but my favourites are Snazzipants and the generic pocket nappies they sell at Baby Factory)
  • using the best eco-friendly disposable nappies and wipes we can find
  • breastfeeding (except if circumstances mean I won’t be around for a feed, in which case he can have formula, for reasons I will explain at length another time but boil down to WILL EVERYONE JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN)
  • trying to buy wooden toys and dissuade family from buying plastic junk.

What I want to do next:

  • have a “toy in, toy out” policy — every time Nico gets something new, he has to donate something he already owns
  • implement a donation/charitable volunteering Christmas present policy and focus on homemade or activity presents rather than vast heaps of toys
  • figure out cloth nappies that won’t leak overnight
  • stop using wipes or compost the ones we do use.

Cleaning and beauty products

What we’re doing now:

  • using planet-friendly cleaning products (best things: Eco and Deco laundry balls, and the steam cleaner I bought for floors and carpet)
  • using olive oil for eye makeup remover (trust me, it’s better than anything you can buy) and coconut oil as moisturiser (ditto)
  • checking makeup and personal products on the Think Dirty app (lots of things look like they’re not full of chemicals but they are, eg Natio, Body Shop)
  • using Ethique products (the deodorant is FANTASTIC — I’d previously given up the idea of being able to find non-chemical deodorant that actually worked — and I’m really enjoying their body bars and conditioner)
  • alternating non-chemical toothpaste with the industrial whitener stuff (because as said above, sometimes I’m okay with better rather than perfect)
  • trying to buy fewer clothes, and from retailers with better scores on the ethical fashion report (sometimes I feel like I use good causes to exploit my own consumer desires… is it still charitable if, between us, the Johnston-Freire household has 10 pairs of Toms?)
  • using Honey Wraps instead of gladwrap.

What I want to do next:

  • kick my Body Shop habit
  • find mascara and good makeup that’s also good for me and the planet (recommendations, anyone? Currently I’m using a lot of Honest Beauty, which I quite like but I have to YouShop it here and it’s not GREAT)
  • start making some body and cleaning products myself.

So there’s a rough summary of how we’re approaching stuff at the moment. Conundrums for another time: transport, power, water, etc.


In a state about the state of things

1 comment

The more I read, lately, the worse it gets. The more in-depth, well-researched and holistic the article, the more terrifying the conclusions for our planet and our species. If you think that’s being hysterical or dramatic, I would absolutely love for you to prove me wrong — but I’m going to need to see your evidence.

If your answer is “just stop reading things”, I sincerely hope you’ve figured out how you’ll explain that strategy to your children when they ask you how everything got so fucked up.

Because this is not about the world our great-grandchildren will live in, or even our grandchildren. Our children will deal with this. We will probably be alive to see it. We’ll definitely be alive for them to call us to account and ask us why we sat here, now, and chose to do nothing.

I started looking up the latest general climate change science, but it’s just too depressing to even continue. I just read an article by one climate scientist who said that, as a generalist looking at the big picture instead of focusing on one area of change, he’s concluded we’ll probably all be dead within 10 years, so there’s no point in even worrying about it anymore.

Things that are not the answer:

  • telling everyone to stop having children, especially if you don’t want children or have already had your children. We have too many people right now, but we do need some humans to continue our species, and if no one gets to have kids then we may as well be fucking extinct because what’s even the point anymore, am I right? If the meaning of life is to watch TV and eat burgers, we do not deserve this planet anyway.
  • hoping the government/the “market” will solve this by itself. That has never worked and never will. We need to actually be informed and agitate for real change.
  • saying “one person can’t make a difference” like the world isn’t made up of individual people. You personally can’t solve the whole problem, but you can sure as shit stop making everything a fuck-ton worse. Recycle. Stop buying plastic crap. Vote. Eat less meat. Do your own cooking. Buy sustainable, organic, free-range and fair-trade. Support local business. Talk to your kids about compassion and empathy and the issues. The power you have, as one individual person, is your vote and your dollar. Use them.

I’ve given myself a thumping headache and, as Brazil points out to me six times a day at the moment, my personal distress isn’t actually helping anyone, so I’m going to wander off.

Anyway. Here’s a list of books I’ve read over the last year or so that I would thoroughly recommend:

  • This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith (good counterpoint to Eating Animals, but gets a bit too out there in places)
  • Postcapitalism by Paul Mason
  • The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson
  • Grass, Soil, Hope by Courtney White

If you have any further recommendations to add to this list, I’d love to hear them. Also any ideas for what we can actually do, here in NZ, to get past the wishy-washy left-right political BS and start having some actual conversations about things that matter.

Also, if you disagree with me, I would love to hear from you. Please, please tell me I’m wrong, or crazy, or being too dramatic. Just also tell me why.