Friday, August 21, 2009

Do I know you? You look vaguely familiar... (face-blindness, or prosopagnosia)

Recently I was doing some contract work in an office where I've occasionally spent time over the past year or so. I was coding up a bit of HTML/CSS when a co-worker paused at my desk and asked me how it was going. We had a bit of a chat, and he went on his way. It wasn't until the following day when I overheard him in conversation with my project-manager, that I realised he isn't a co-worker at all. He's the client.

When we'd been talking at my desk, I had recognised his face enough to know that we'd interacted before, and that he was a member of the set of "people who spend time in this office" - but I had no more knowledge about him than that. I did not realise, for example, that on at least two occasions over the last couple of months we'd had hour-long meetings where I sat opposite him at a small table, presented my designs to him and discussed the project in detail.

And if I had seen him "out of context" - in the street, for example, or at a party - I would most likely not have recognised him at all - or at best I might have had a vague inkling that I knew him, but would be completely unable to place him ("I think I know you but I don't know how I know you"). And as for attaching a name to that face that I'm not sure if I recognise or not? Not a chance.

As the publicist for The Gathering from 1998-2000 I became somewhat well-known within the dance community (being pushed around The Domain in a shopping trolley while being interviewed by Havoc and Newsboy will do that for you!) - and as a member of The Gathering's organising crew I met hundreds of dance party people over the years.

The problem for me came when I was expected to recognise and remember the names of any of those people I'd met only once or twice (or even a few times), or anyone who I hadn't seen for a while.

As 'the face of The Gathering' I was recognised in the street fairly regularly, and occasionally I would be accosted by someone who would throw their arms around me and cry "thank you thank you - you changed my life!" (in which case I'd think "oh this is probably a Gatherer and I probably haven't met them before").

But sometimes they'd stop me in the street to have a conversation about The Gathering, and I would have absolutely no clue who they were or if I ought to know who they were.

Have I met this person before? Did I crew with them at TheG? Are they a DJ I really ought to know? Or have they recognised me from the telly and feel that they know me a little, which is why they're talking to me like they know me, even though I don't know them??? How confusing. How embarrassing on occasion, when I didn't recognise someone that I really should have been able to recognise.

It appears that I need to meet and interact with someone at least three or four times before I can get at least some of their physical characteristics fixed in my head enough to recognise them. Even if I spend an entire day interacting with you at a conference, or a party, or a meeting of some kind, if I pass you on the street the following day, I probably won't know that I know you - or I may have a vague idea that you are familiar, but I will have no idea of the context in which we've met.

Parties are very stressful for me, because unless they are filled with people I know very well, I have a hard time working out who is who and whether or not we've been introduced. The short intro provided by the host "this is so-and-so, we work together - webweaver is a friend of mine" is too short a time for me to get anything much about your appearance fixed in my head - let alone your name. I'm so busy trying to smile and shake hands and say hello-nice-to-meet-you that once I move on to meet the next person, virtually everything about your physical appearance is gone from my mind.

If we end up chatting at the party later on, it is a virtual certainty that I will not remember your name, and very likely that I will not actually know whether or not our host has introduced us already, or if this is the first time I've laid eyes on you.

I use a bunch of different tricks to try and get a fix on people I've recently met. Your clothes, the way you speak, the way you move or walk, the things we talk about (I can recall conversations word for word, even days after they have taken place), your hair, your body shape and size. But not really your face, unless you have strongly unique or extreme facial features of some kind.

Imagine that we're at a costume party and I interact with five new people. At the end of the party, everyone changes back into street clothes and we gather round to say our farewells. Because your clothes are now different, I probably won't have any idea which five new people out of the 20 at the party I have actually spoken to. My main initial clue about who you are - your unique costume - is gone, and I'm lost.

I remember one time looking at two photographs with a group of friends. In both photos was a guy we knew, with a girl that we didn't know. Or was it two different girls? As my friends discussed whether or not he was pictured with the same girl in both photos, I stared and stared at the faces, trying to figure it out. Yes, both pictures showed a girl with long brown hair, but they were taken at different times, she was wearing different clothes, and her face was shown at a different angle in each photo. I realised that I had absolutely no idea if it was the same girl or not. I was completely unable to identify common characteristics of the two faces, in order to decide if it was one girl, or two.

If you recognise me and stop me in the street for a chat, unless I know you well, I may not know who you are. I say if you stop me because it's highly unlikely that I will stop you. This is because it takes me much longer than most people to even vaguely recognise someone I don't know well. 'Normal' people apparently recognise each other within a second or so. It takes me ten times that amount of time - if at all. By which time we're fifty yards apart heading in opposite directions, and the moment is past.

So assuming you've stopped me, and we're chatting away on the street corner, I will be feverishly trying to find you in my mental database, while at the same time trying to carry on a conversation with you. "Who is this person? Do they look familiar? Where do I know them from? And what the heck is their name?" (yeah good luck with that last one!)

I'll try to direct the conversation in order to glean clues about who you are:

"Gosh it's been a while... what have you been up to?" (frantically hoping that it has been a while and that I didn't actually get introduced to you just yesterday).

"Where are you working these days?" (frantically hoping you're not one of my new co-workers with whom I've been sharing an office space for the past three days).

"Crikey my memory's going," (I lie) "when did we last see each other?" (praying as I say it that this is an appropriate question to ask within the context that you know about how we know each other, and about which I have have no clue as yet).

Even if I get the answers I need, and am able to locate you in my mental database, I am extremely unlikely to use your name (unless you say it to me first), and certainly you will almost never hear me say "Hi [your name]" if I bump into you in the street, because it will take me quite a while to connect up your name with your face, even if I know you quite well.

If I've just spent the last five minutes trying to figure out who you are, even if I'm 99% sure I've worked it out and I'm lucky enough to have some recollection of your name, I'm so unsure of my abilities that I probably won't risk saying your name in case I've got it wrong.

"Oh we must do coffee sometime soon and catch up properly," you say. And I say "cool, that would be great - do you have a business card?"

I can't say "Hey let's exchange phone numbers" because if I haven't recalled your name I won't have any way of identifying you in my phonebook! If I see your name written down on your card I can try to attach that word shape to something about your appearance and maybe I'll remember you next time - and I'll also have a name I can stick in my phone memory next to your number.

I dread bumping into someone I only know vaguely if I'm with someone else - because I cannot introduce you to each other. By the time I've figured out who you are (and assuming a miracle has occurred and I've been able to recall your name as well), the moment is long past when I should have introduced you to my friend, so I just have to keep going and hope that you introduce yourselves to each other, or continue the conversation knowing that both of you must think I'm awfully rude not bothering to do any introductions. God how embarrassing.

Afterwards I can apologise to my friend and confess why I didn't introduce them to you, but you will have gone on your way wondering why I left my friend out of our conversation, and you may well be thinking that I really am rather socially awkward, weird and impolite.

This lack of ability to recognise faces or put them into some kind of context of "how I know you" actually has a name, and an official-sounding one, at that. It's called prosopagnosia, or "face-blindness" and until quite recently it was thought to be extremely rare and very little research had been done about it.

Then in 2004 researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity in subjects being asked to recognise famous faces, where one face (eg Marilyn Monroe) was morphed into another (eg Margaret Thatcher). Crazy combination, I know!

From How the brain recognises a face:

The brain goes through three separate stages to decide if it recognises a face, scientists claim.

A team from University College London says the first assesses a face's physical aspects.

The second decides if it is known or unknown. If it is a recognisable face, the third part puts a name to it.

To be specific:
It was found that the inferior occipital gyri at the back of the brain were found to be particularly sensitive to slight physical changes, such as wrinkles, in the faces.

The right fusiform gyrus (RFG), appeared to be involved in making a more general appraisal of the face and compares it to the brain's database of stored memories to see if it is someone familiar.

The third activated region, the anterior temporal cortex (ATC), is believed to store facts about people and is thought to be an essential part of the identifying process.

This area was more active when volunteers knew the celebrities well.

The researchers say that if even one of these steps breaks down - as can happen in some forms of dementia - people can lose their ability to identify others.

Knowing how the process works means it may be possible to intervene when the it breaks down, as in dementia.

It may also help people with prosopagnosia or 'face-blindness' - a rare condition where the brain is unable to process faces normally and people may not even be able to recognise their partner's face, or their own image in the mirror.

Having done a serious amount of reading over the past couple of days about this strange phenomenon (which is not so strange to me!) it seems as though I have trouble with the second and third steps in the process, especially if I don't know someone very well, or haven't seen them in a while.

I'd be the absolute last person you'd want as a witness to a bank robbery. If I had to do an identification line-up thingy I'd be completely hopeless - especially if they picked people who looked remotely similar to the suspect.

This can extend to people I know very well, if they change their appearance in some way. If you walk past me on the street and you're wearing sunglasses or a big floppy hat, don't expect me to say "hi" because I really won't know if it's you under there or not.

A more extreme example is my experience with male friends who have shaved off their beards or other facial hair.

Years ago, my friend John (who was my workmate and best friend at the time) decided to go clean-shaven, instead of the rather substantial beard and moustache he usually sported. So he turns up at my house and I literally have no idea who he is. Remember this guy was my best friend - I hung out with him almost every day. So I'm standing there at the door wondering who the hell this guy is, and he opens his mouth and starts speaking, and I practically fall to the floor in shock.

It is the most bizarre experience, to hear a completely familiar voice coming out of the face of someone who is suddenly completely unfamiliar to you. It took me at least a week to get used to John's new face and to come to terms with the disconnect between voice and visage.

Can you picture someone's face in your mind? I can't. I can't even picture my own face. When I think about a person I know, I can visualise their body shape. I can see a fairly strong image of their hair, especially if it's striking (Lou's long red hair, Ben's greying bouncy hair for example). I can picture their stance, how they walk and move (Ben again, waving his arms around as he talks). The type of clothes (or even individual items of clothing) they wear. I can conjure up an echo of their voice in my head without too much difficulty.

But the face? I can recall nothing but the very vaguest, blurry outline - as if someone drew a picture of the person's face with coloured chalks, and then rubbed a cloth across the drawing, obliterating virtually all the detail. The only exception to this is if someone has a striking or unusual facial feature that I can latch on to. Bright blue eyes with dark eyelashes for example, or a scar, or a big nose. Apart from that, your faces are all a bunch of amorphous blobs in my mind's eye. How sad is that?

I think one of my problems with recognising faces, especially when I've only met someone a couple of times, is that I tend to watch people's mouths very closely when they're speaking, and I rarely look someone in the eye for any length of time - if at all. Do I? If you're reading this and you know me - do I make eye contact less than most people do? I'm pretty sure that's the case, but as I have nothing to compare myself with, I'm not entirely sure.

Anyway - as far as I'm aware I don't look people in the eyes much, and I know I tend to focus on the mouth. I think this may be partly because I find it difficult to follow a conversation sometimes, especially if we're in a noisy, crowded room where lots of other people are also talking. I think I may actually be lip-reading to some extent in this kind of environment, hence the need to watch your lips closely when you speak to me.

Because of my narrow visual focus on only one part of your face, I don't give myself much of a chance to note what the rest of your face looks like. I won't know what colour your eyes are, for example, or whether you have freckles, a turned-up nose or apple cheeks. I'll probably remember the colour of your hair, and perhaps even your hairstyle (hair is easier, for some reason), but with only a mouth and hair to go by next time I meet you, it's probably not surprising that your overall appearance won't jog my memory into realising that we've met before.

It can also work the other way around. One time I popped in to say hi to my friend who is a video editor, and found him hard at work with someone I didn't know. "Oh hi webweaver," he said, "this is [other visitor's first name]". "Hi there," I said. "You look very familiar... have we met before?" I asked. "I don't think so" she replied.

It wasn't until a few minutes after that, as I watched them working together and discussing the footage they were editing, that I realised why she looked familiar. She was a TV presenter, and I'd just asked her if we knew each other. Aaargh. Embarrassment!

I've also been known to totally embarrass myself by attempting to talk to one acquaintance about stuff I did with a completely different acquaintance - thinking that they are one and the same person. It's true! At least ten years after I first met these two guys I know, I finally copped on to the fact that they were actually two different people, and not the same person at all.

I realise now that there's a range of tricks and techniques I've developed over the years to help me recognise and remember people. Because my face-recognition abilities are so limited, I have compensated by developing my abilities in other ways.

A couple of months ago there was a piece on the news about a guy who had hidden a diamond ring somewhere in Wellington. He was going to leave clues to where it was, so people could try and track it down. If they found it, they could keep it. They interviewed another guy who had decided to try and find the ring, but who didn't want to be identified because he was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him - and he wanted it to be a surprise. They interviewed him with his back to the camera, but they didn't disguise his voice.

No more than two words were out of his mouth before I leapt to attention from my place on the sofa and exclaimed "oh my God! That's [name of my friend]!" Heck - I even came up with his name instantly, and I don't even know him that well.

So it appears I'm pretty good at voice recognition. Certainly when I lived in England (land of a thousand regional accents) I could identify any accent at twenty paces - and if it was a Midlands accent (where I lived) I could probably tell you which small town they were from without too much trouble.

If you call me up on the phone and you don't identify yourself, I'll know who you are pretty much instantly anyway, which is good. Could be confusing otherwise! I assume that most people can do the recognise-the-voice-on-the-phone thing - because otherwise everyone would always identify themselves, wouldn't they?

But this whole recognising my friend on the telly by his voice surprised me - because of the number of times I've seen people interviewed (on crime shows or whatever) who have asked not to be identified. So they have the person's face in darkness, sometimes there's a light behind them so you're not just looking at a dark screen, which means if they turn their head slightly you might see a bit of their profile - but their voices are not disguised at all.

If I was a mob boss and I heard one of my minions confessing all on the telly and dropping me in it - I'd know instantly who it was by their voice alone, and I'd probably send one of the boys round to have them dealt to.

...which made me think... am I better at voice recognition than the average bear, and is this an ability I've developed to compensate for my face-blindness? Or are there dozens of whistle-blowers being offed all over the place after spilling the beans in darkness on telly because everyone can do it as well as me - and it's only the TV producers who don't realise that fact?

This is the thing with face-blindness if you've had it all your life - you have no 'normal' baseline to which you can compare your abilities (or lack of them). So for years and years you struggle on, getting embarrassed because you can't remember who people are, and inadvertently offending acquaintances who think you should recognise them when you don't - and the whole time you have no idea that everyone else can do this stuff ten times better and faster than you can.

One time my workmates and I had a bit of a problem with a guy and we had to call the police. We were standing on the street talking to the cops when I looked across the road and saw the guy (he'd run away initially, but goodness knows why, he'd returned to the scene a few minutes later.) "That's him!" I cried, "I recognise his hat!"

Silly boy. If he'd only removed his beanie I wouldn't have had a clue that it was the same person. It was the hat that gave it away, because one of my coping strategies is to focus on people's clothes when I'm talking to them - and your attire will stick in my head far more quickly and effectively than your face will.

Most of us with face-blindness find uniforms extremely difficult to deal with, because when everyone is wearing similar outfits, we are denied one of the important pieces of data we use to identify people we know - the type of clothes we know they like to wear.

At my secondary school all the girls wore uniforms - the 'uniformity' of which was pretty tightly controlled. I used to play a game with myself when I was walking up the steep hill from the bus stop to school in the morning. Which of my friends can I see walking up the hill ahead of me?

I was easily able to recognise someone from behind, who was wearing a standard school uniform, and from quite a long way away (a couple of hundred metres or more) just by the way they walked. I assumed everyone could do this - but perhaps I'm more skilled at this than most people - because I have developed this ability to compensate for my face-blindness.

Interestingly enough, although my ability to do steps two and three of face-recogition is somewhat impaired, I think I'm pretty good at step one - recognising subtle differences and slight physical changes, such as wrinkles, in the faces of those I know well.

If you've had your hair cut, for example, I'll notice it straight away, and I'll probably comment on it. If I haven't seen you in a while, but you're someone whose face is very familiar to me, I'll notice if you're looking tired, or a bit older than when I last saw you, or if you've lost or gained weight.

Some people develop prosopagnosia as a result of a stroke or brain injury - and because these people suddenly lose the ability to recognise faces - and they're probably already under a doctor's care -- this form of face-blindness has been more well-researched than the form displayed by those of us who were born with it.

The mildness or severity of a individual's face-blindness varies along a continuum, in much the same way as Autism or Aspergers does. My face-blindness is by no means severe (I would not mistake my wife for a hat, for example), and I can pretty much guarantee I will always be able to recognise my own face, and that of my close friends and family, but it's still somewhat of a handicap in many social and work situations.

You might be wondering if I have trouble recognising or remembering other things, and I have to say no - I'm pretty good at most things, it's really only faces I have trouble with.

Like a lot of people with prosopagnosia, I like to sort and categorise things, perhaps because it helps me with the categorising I need to do in order to try and remember who someone is. I can still recognise and name pretty much any tree in the English countryside (even in winter with no leaves on the tree I can recognise it by its shape alone), or any flower growing in an English hedgerow - because I learned these for fun when out for walks with my family as a kid - and I have never forgotten them.

The categorisation that face-blind people do is important when trying to identify someone, because it narrows down the vast range of characteristics we need to remember. If I want to identify you in a crowd, I'll be thinking of ways in which I can do that - you have long brown hair, your skin is pale, your ears stick out a bit and you like to wear T-shirts and jeans, for example. That narrows down the number of people I have to focus on in order to find you.

If you stop me in the street and I'm not sure who you are, part of my inner process is to identify which of my "type" categories you fall into as I desperately try to figure out how I know you, and what your name might be. By categorising you in some way, I reduce the number of entries I have to sift through in my mental database before I find someone who fits your description.

It also explains why it's so much harder for me to recognise you if I meet you "out of context" - that is, outside the place where I normally interact with you. If I have a context for you, I can eliminate everyone in my database who isn't part of that context, or that mental "set". Without the context, there's a much larger number of sets to sort through in my mind.

For face-blind people, I think pattern recognition and characterisation is so important because we need to use these types of techniques far more frequently than most people do. So, for example, my visual memory for word shapes verges on the photographic, by which I mean that an incorrectly-spelled word will jump off the page at me when I'm reading, without me even having to look for it. If you ask me how to spell a word, I'll be able to visualise it in my head and spell it out to you faster than you can write it down, and I'm almost never wrong. Was I born with this ability, or has it developed as a result of my need to identify patterns and characteristics in people? I don't know.

I mentioned earlier that I have a good memory for conversations and can repeat back to you, word for word, a conversation we had weeks ago - especially if it was important, heated, or emotionally charged in some way. I'm also a pretty good person to have on your pub quiz team, because I have a pretty good memory for all kinds of useless and random facts on a fairly wide range of subjects. Lord knows how I know half the stuff I know, or why it sticks in my mind, but it does. Again, I don't know if these skills are as a result of me compensating for my face-blindness, or if I had them all along.

I think perhaps the most frustrating thing for me is the fairly dramatic contrast between my intellectual and memory-based abilities in almost every area of my life - and my complete lack of ability to remember your face and your name (a skill which most people take for granted).

I can remember whole soliloquies from Shakespeare, and poems by Catullus in the original Latin that I learned mumbletymumble years ago at school - and I can often answer more than half the 5-minute quiz questions in the paper without even raising a sweat - so why the heck can't I remember this person's name I only met five minutes ago - and why is it so hard for me to recognise a face when everyone else can do this without even trying?

In the office where I mistook the client for a co-worker I did an unprecedented thing soon after that happened. I described my disability to my project manager and to a new co-worker he introduced me to, with whom I was going to be working.

"I'm not very good at recognising faces, so it will take me a few days of working with you before I get your face fixed in my head. When I come in tomorrow I may not be able to work out which is you, or if you come and talk to me and I don't notice which desk you were sitting at, I may not realise that you are the person I worked with today. And it's definitely going to take me a few days to remember your name. So please bear with me - I'll get there eventually."

They both thought this was highly amusing - especially when I described my confusion with our client - but as far as I could tell they didn't judge me for it - they just gave me a bit of help over the next few days, reminding me who my new co-worker was and re-introducing us at meetings.

It was pretty cool actually, and it sure beats looking like an idiot because you don't recognise someone and no-one knows why. I think it might have even improved my ability to recognise and remember him more quickly - perhaps because by being honest I had taken the pressure off myself, and no longer had to worry about whether or not I knew which one he was.

So if you know me - or you know someone like me - and we bump into each other in the street, you can help me out enormously by reminding me of who you are and how we know each other. You can also introduce yourself to my friend if I don't do it straight away.

And in return I think I might start doing what I occasionally already do - which is to 'fess up right away and explain that "I think I know you, but I'm afraid I don't know how I know you". It certainly beats the embarrassment of trying to fake my way through a conversation with someone I can't identify - and now that I have a name for this strange condition, somehow it doesn't seem quite so threatening as it used to.

I'm just a bit face-blind, that's all.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cadbury's and me

Last time I went to the supermarket I bought a block of Whittaker's Fruit and Nut chocolate, instead of the block of Cadbury's I normally buy.

Not an enormously significant act you might say, except that the Cadbury brand has been a very important part of my life ever since I was born, and as far as a person can be wedded to a particular brand, I've been wedded to Cadbury's. The Whittaker's chocolate in my shopping basket was the first I had ever bought, and the first time that I have ever chosen a chocolate brand other than Cadbury's.

Let me explain.

I was born and brought up in Bournville, Birmingham, England. The original home of Cadbury's. The factory is still there, and still makes chocolate. Until I was eleven and ventured outside Bournville to go to secondary school, Cadbury's was suffused into every aspect of my world.

I went to Bournville Infant and Junior Schools, which, we were often reminded, were originally established by George and Elizabeth Cadbury at the turn of the century to "provide education of the highest quality" for the children of his factory workers.

Every Saturday, the music of the 48 bells of the Carillon played by Mr Workman the carillonneur would drift across our garden from its home in the tower on top of the Junior School - and every fifteen minutes of every day we'd hear the bells chime the hour, the half and the quarters.

Mr Aldington, the scariest teacher in the school, had his classroom in the tower, directly beneath the carillon. He was Mr Workman's assistant, and one of the biggest treats of being a pupil at Bournville Juniors was the trip up into the tower during the summer term of our final year to meet Mr Workman and see him play the carillon.

The carillon was (and still is) the sound of Bournville, and as it was housed in George Cadbury's school, we always thought of it as being George Cadbury's very own music.

Our house was a 10-minute walk from the Cadbury factory, and when the wind was in the right direction you could smell the chocolate wafting through the parks and tree-lined lanes of Bournville. It was wonderful. Every afternoon when the hooter sounded to mark the shift change we'd pause and picture the workers streaming in and out of the factory, and we'd wish that we could somehow sneak in with them and be surrounded by that delicious, mystical, magical entity - chocolate.

Every spring for at least three months all the girls in the village would practise and practise to perfect the ancient English art of the maypole dance; and in the summer we'd perform at the Maypole festival which was held once a year at the Cadbury factory recreation ground.

The Queen's Basket, The Gypsy's Tent, The Barber's Pole and (trickiest of all) The Chain - I can still remember the steps to each of those dances, and can clearly recall the excitement of performing them in front of hundreds of people. We were all dressed in white, with garlands of flowers in our hair, and the beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture of the factory was itself a somehow fitting backdrop to the show.

Every Christmas the whole school would be invited to the Cadbury factory cinema to watch a hand-picked movie - and apart from the year when the staff unfortunately selected Old Yeller which had three-quarters of the school in hysterical tears by the end - the visit to the Cadbury cinema was another highlight of our year.

I have so many powerful memories of my childhood, much of it spent playing with my friends in the many parks of Bournville. My dad teaching me to ride my bike in a single day in the park at the end of our lane, and later teaching myself to ride it no-handed along the pathways that criss-crossed the yaching pool park. Watching the old men sail their little model boats in the yachting pool, and the great adventure we had the day of the torrential rain when the whole pool flooded and the entire park became a great brown sea of fast-moving water.

Catching stickle-backs in the stream that ran through the park alongside my friend Tania's house, and climbing the great willow tree next to her house. Falling out of another tree a few years later as I put my full weight on a rotten branch, and having to be rescued by my friend Leslie's mum as I clung upside down from a lower branch, too terrified to move.

Building dens and playing make-believe from dawn to dusk in the vast areas of woodland and fields near Leslie's house, watching the cows in the fields between her house and the yachting pool, and learning to ride horses there too.

Marvelling at the display of pink blossom that covered the dozens of ornamental cherry trees along Woodbrooke Road every spring, loving the mass of crocuses that appeared at the same time each year in the park next to our school; the song of the blackbird in the twilight trees that to me will always be the sound of summer; looking forward with great anticipation to the autumn when we could fossick through the fallen chestnut leaves all the way down Oak Tree Lane from our house to the Bournville Village Trust building, searching for the elusive and much-treasured conker; and loving the strange white-light muffled silence that would herald an overnight fall of snow in winter.

For a place that, by the time I lived there, was essentially a suburb of the big industrial city that was Birmingham, it sounds like an idyllic childhood stuck in a time-warp sometime earlier in the century, and in many ways it was. We knew that outside the confines of Bournville village the rest of the world was not like the place in which we lived, and fundamentally we all knew that our peaceful and tree-lined existence was entirely due to the generosity, character and far-sightedness of the Cadbury family.

The whole of Bournville was, and still is, a conservation area (of which we were very proud) because George Cadbury did such a bang-up job of creating a model village for his workers at the turn of the century.

George Cadbury himself, as we all learned at school, was a Good Guy. A Quaker who built a factory on the outskirts of the big city and determined that the houses he would build for his workers would be a hundred times better than the dwellings most working-class people lived in at the time. Indoor loo, plumbing, hot water, semi-detached (not terraced), and each house had a garden with 6 fruit trees planted in it. Parks throughout the village, a village green, recreation grounds adjoining the factory so that the men and women who worked for him could keep fit, no pubs allowed within the village boundaries (to this day!)... quite amazing really.

This wonderful environment in which I spent my childhood was inextricably linked with Cadbury's, and so it was inevitable that I would maintain my loyalty to that product and brand throughout my life. Until now.

I (and everyone else who has ever lived in Bournville) am more Cadbury's than the individuals who now own the international Cadbury brand will ever be - and it's why the other day in the supermarket I chose not to buy Cadbury's any more - and why I felt sure that George Cadbury must have been turning in his grave at the thought of how far from his original enlightened ideals his products have strayed.

Although New Zealand still makes its own Cadbury's assortments and box chocolates in the Dunedin factory, a restructure in 2008 meant that the manufacture of all our Cadbury chocolate bars was shifted to two Australian factories. For a while we had our own combination of ingredients, different from (and better than) the Australian version, but in order to save money, Cadbury's recently made what I think was a very stupid decision.

I'm sure you know that a couple of months ago Cadbury Australia made three very significant changes to their chocolate - each of which in its own way has had a very negative effect on the quality of the chocolate itself, and on the image of the brand in the eyes of me and many other Kiwis.

Firstly they reduced the size of all their chocolate blocks, with the family block going down from 250g to 200g - and disguised this fact by changing the traditional paper and foil packaging to a cardboard casing which mirrored the old size exactly, while containing 50g less chocolate. You can see it here:

Secondly they reduced the cocoa content from 26% down to 21% - which is only one percent more than the minimum required to still call the product "chocolate"; and thirdly, they replaced the traditional (and many would say essential) cocoa butter with vegetable fat including palm oil.

Not a good look, especially when you find out that palm oil is a big big no-no if you care about the environment, global warming, or the threat to the world's few remaining habitats in Indonesia for endangered Sumatran tigers, Javan rhinoceroses and orang-utans.

In April 2008 Greenpeace launched a campaign in a number of countries to push companies at various points along the palm oil supply chain into supporting measures to protect rainforests from further plantation expansion.

From Greenpeace: Palm oil:

Demand for palm oil is growing and fast. At the moment, most of it ends up in hundreds of food products - from margarine and chocolate to cream cheese and oven chips - although it's also used in cosmetics and increasingly, for use in biodiesel. But the cost to the environment and the global climate is devastating - to feed this demand, tropical rainforests and peatlands in South East Asia are being torn up to provide land for oil palm plantations.

When Cadbury's switched to palm oil in their chocolate they claimed that, being a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meant that they were only using sustainable palm oil, but Greenpeace refutes that claim. They say:
The RSPO was established in 2001 as a market-led initiative to reform the way palm oil is produced, processed and used, with clear standards on the production of sustainable palm oil. Members include companies all along the supply chain, from big name companies such as Unilever, Cadbury's, Nestlé and Tesco, to suppliers such as Cargill, ADM and Indonesian-based Duta Palma.

As it currently stands, even though member companies are paying lip-service to forest and peatland protection, the reality is very different. The existing standards developed by the RSPO will not prevent forest and peatland destruction, and a number of RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices of the palm oil industry. Some like palm oil processor Duta Palma, an RSPO member, are directly involved in deforestation. Worse still, at present the RSPO itself is creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the industry.

The destruction of rainforests and peatlands to make way for palm oil plantations in Indonesia has a devastating effect on the already shrinking habitats of a number of endangered species, and also contributes to global warming. As Greenpeace explains:
The manufacturers of these products - Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever - are sourcing their palm oil from suppliers who aren't picky about where they site their plantations. As the volunteers at the Forest Defenders Camp in Sumatra have seen, this includes tearing up areas of pristine forest then draining and burning the peatlands.

Indonesia's peatlands act as huge carbon stores so replacing them with plantations them not only threatens the amazing biodiversity, including the rare Sumatran tiger, it also releases huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They only cover 0.1 per cent of the land on Earth, but thanks in part to the activities of the palm oil industry they contribute 4 per cent to global emissions. If expansion of the palm oil industry continues unabated, that figure can only rise.

It was with great pleasure, therefore, that I read today that Cadbury's has decided to bow to consumer pressure and will stop using palm oil in its Dairy Milk chocolate. Hooray! Apparently they were inundated with emails and letters from disgruntled Kiwi customers, and if the 3,517-strong Facebook group Take Palm Oil out of Cadbury chocolate bars! is anything to go by, feelings were running pretty high out there in the world of chocolate lovers.

When even the sluggish old mainstream media gets in on the act and starts laying out the case against palm oil, you know you've lost the battle.

Whittaker's brilliantly-timed ad didn't help Cadbury's cause much either:

Especially once it was featured on Campbell Live:

I don't for one minute believe that Cadbury's suddenly went all "Greenpeace" on us (although I'm sure Quaker George would have been a quiet supporter if they'd been around back then). I'm quite sure they didn't suddenly develop a conscience about the fate of the orang-utan or climate change.

No, I think it's pretty clear what changed Cadbury's mind - you only have to read the comments on any of the Stuff articles or YouTube videos I've linked to, to see what's been the driving force behind their abrupt about-turn. It's economics, of course.

But is it all too little, too late? Has Cadbury's lost market share to Whittakers for ever? Here are a few examples from Stuff:
too late, i have become addicted to whitakers

I may now consider purchasing Cadbury again - MAY consider! It has been 3 months since my last 'fruit and nut' thick and chunky! lol

That is great to hear - the chocolate just did not taste the same. I wonder if they will also address the fact the pack sizes shrank considerably, meaning we paid the same for not only an inferior product, but we also paid the same for a far smaller size. As soon as I noticed the changes Cadbury had made, I started buying the Kiwi brand Whittaker's... I think I will stay with them for now, as the product is amazing.

This will not change my mind on buying the product. I used to enjoy my block of Dairy Milk but since production moved to Australia it has not been the same in both texture and taste. Whether this was the palm oil I do not know. I now and only will ever buy Whittakers as firstly it is made in New Zealand, and secondly is a far superior product to what Cadbury's is now.

Their decision to use Palm Oil, which only became known via Fair Go so appeared underhanded, single-handedly bombed their position as NZ's most trusted brand. Good decision to now cease using Palm Oil but it will take a very long time to regain the TRUST they once had with the NZ public.

Only time will tell whether Cadbury's will regain the trust of yer average chocolate-loving Kiwi. But one thing's for sure. As Coca Cola also discovered when they changed their recipe - don't mess with a beloved brand. It'll only lead to tears.

As for me, well I have to say I really quite liked my bar of Whittakers Fruit & Nut. I think I might try their Dairy Milk next time - just to see. Cadbury's may have taken the palm oil back out of their Dairy Milk, but they don't say anything about any of their other products in today's press release - and when you compare Whittaker's 33% cocoa with Cadbury's pathetic 21% - well, there's not much competition really is there?

I may be a Cadbury's girl born and bred, but it doesn't mean that at some point I can't explore the world beyond the confines of the village of Bournville...

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The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See

How come I've never seen this before?

Whether you're someone who believes that Climate Change is happening and that we're the cause, or you believe it's a load of old hogwash cooked up by rabid greenies trying to take over the planet - you should watch this.

Thanks to Richard Llewellyn who posted the link on Public Address - where a very interesting debate about John Key's new Chief Science Advisor, Peter Gluckman is going on as we speak.

Pass it on....

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So what's it worth to ya, then?

Alice responded to my latest tweet very rapidly the other day, calling me almost as soon as I posted it. My tweet read, in part:

Bad: $1000 to get my car thro its WOF. Ouch!

My car is about 11 years old, which means it has to have a check-up once every six months. Last time it sailed through with no problems, but a year ago I had to have a teeny teeny tiny rust spot fixed on each sill and it cost me nearly $1000. Nightmare!

So here we are, a year later, and I'm faced with another $1000 bill. Ouch indeed!

Alice reckons I should sell my car immediately and get a new (second-hand) one. Her logic is that, as I'm now regularly having to spend as much each year on getting the car through its WOF as it's actually worth, I should get rid of it asap, and buy one that's not going to cost me so much to maintain each year.

She's got a point - on the surface it makes perfect sense. Why keep a car that costs me a grand a year (at least) to keep on the road - and for which, if I were to sell it, I would probably not get much more than that?

Alice and I think somewhat differently about this though, because I reckon my car is worth between $10,000 and $15,000 - to me.

What I mean is, if I were to buy a new (second-hand) car, it would cost me somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000. I bought my current car for $12,000 eight years ago, when it was 3 years old, and I'm sure I'd have to pay at least as much if I bought another one now.

I'm not one of those people who worships their car. Half the time I can't even remember the licence plate number, and I certainly couldn't tell you the engine size (although I do know the make and model!). It's just a useful thing as far as I'm concerned, and there are many other things I'd keep in preference to my car (like my computer and internet access for example), if I had to choose.

I don't use my car very regularly - once a week down the hill to Batucada rehearsal and on to the supermarket every fortnight, maybe once every six months taking the cats to the vet, the occasional visits to friends, maybe the garden centre every month or two - and that's about it. It gets me from A to B when I need it to, and the rest of the time I walk or take the bus, so it's not as if I need it to take me long distances every day - or even every week.

I keep a log book where I record my petrol purchases, and a couple of years ago (before I joined Batucada) I realised it had been 12 months since I had last bought petrol for the car. I filled up the tank yesterday, and my last purchase was in January, so there you go.

I'm very much my father's daughter. Dad was extremely careful with money - miserly even - and he taught us to be careful with money too. He had a credit card, but he (literally) only used it to buy ferry tickets for the family camping holiday to Europe each summer. The rest of the time he didn't buy anything unless he had saved up enough money to buy it outright. No mortgage, no HP, no borrowings at all.

I'm not quite as pure as that (not by a long way), but I do do my research very carefully before I spend my money, and (apart from my house) I don't buy stuff unless I have the money to pay for it either. I paid for my current car with cash, which probably disappointed the salesman who was eager to tie me into a deeply costly finance agreement as quickly as possible...

Dad also never threw things away if he could fix them himself. He was an engineer, so he did all the maintenance on our cars, and never had to pay anyone else to do it. He only ever bought second-hand cars, and always bought Ford Escorts because he reckoned they were the best in those days. Funnily enough, I have also never bought a new car, and my current car is also a Ford Escort. Told you I was my father's daughter!

Fundamentally, I can't just throw away my car because it needs a bit more maintenance these days. I'm just not wired that way. Like my dad, I'm planning to drive it until it falls apart - and if it costs me a thousand bucks a year to make that happen, it's worth it as far as I'm concerned. It's certainly better than forking out 15K to get myself a new one before the old one's quite finished...

PS - I owe Justin at Capital City Ford a very big thank you. Instead of sending off to Auckland for a new headlight (there was moisture inside the old one, which meant it was failing its WOF), he took the time to take the old one apart, dry it out and put it back together again. My bill ended up being $400 less than they'd quoted, and my knackered old headlight got a new lease of life. A man after my dad's heart for sure!

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