Hey ONS: This Is Not A Mistake

Hi, ONS! I know we haven’t really spoken since you ghosted me in 2011, but I just wanted to clear something up for you –

This is not a mistake (except for the missing last names):

(Specimen) 2021 census form on which Ruth declares that she cohabits with both a husband AND a partner.
It’s perfectly possible for somebody to live with multiple partners, even if they’re forbidden from marrying more than one.

Back in 2011 you thought it was a mistake, and this prevented my partner, her husband and I from filling out the digital version of the census. I’m sure it’s not common for somebody to have multiple cohabiting romantic relationships (though it’s possibly more common than some other things you track…), but surely an “Are you sure?” would be better than a “No you don’t!”

Clippy says "It looks like you've got a husband AND a partner. Is that right?" with possible answers "Yes, and it's awesome." or "No, but I can dream!"
For all I know, you already fixed it. If not: I mocked-up a UI for you.

We worked around it in 2011 by using the paper forms. Apparently this way you still end up “correcting” our relationship status for us (gee, thanks!) but at least – I gather – the originals are retained. So maybe in a more-enlightened time, future statisticians might be able ask about the demographics of domestic nonmonogamy and have at least some data to work with from the early 21st century.

I know you’re keen for as many people as possible to do the census digitally this year. But unless you’ve fixed your forms then my family and I – and thousands of others like us – will either have to use the paper copies you’re trying to phase out… or else knowingly lie on the digital versions. Which would you prefer?

The Varieties of Intimate Relationship

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Diagram dividing varieties of intimiate relationships into monogamy, polyamory, celebacy, and a few things in-between.

A slightly tongue-in-cheek (see the “serial monogamy” chain and some of the subtitles!) but moderately-complete diagram of popular varieties of relationship structure. Obviously there’s gaps – relationships are as diverse as their participants – and lots of room for refinement, but the joy of an infographic is making visible the breadth of a field, not in providing encyclopaedic comprehension of that field. I especially like the attention to detail in “connecting” often-related concepts.

Confused.com Confuses Me

It’s that time of year again when I comparison-shop for car insurance, and every time I come across a new set of reasons to hate the developers at Confused.com. How do you confuse me? Let me count the ways.

No means yes

I was planning to enumerate my concerns to them directly, via their contact form, but when I went to do so I spotted this bit of genius, which clinched it and made me write a blog post instead:

Animated GIF showing how clicking on "No" on Confused.com's contact form checks the "Yes" box.
Clicking the word “Yes” means “Yes”. Clicking the word “No” means “Yes” as well.

Turns out that there’s a bit of the old sloppy-paste going on there:

<input type="radio" value="Yes" id="ContactByPhoneYes" name="contactByPhone" />
<label for="ContactByPhoneYes" class="label">Yes</label>
<input type="radio" value="No" id="ContactByPhoneNo" name="contactByPhone" />
<label for="ContactByPhoneYes" class="label">No</label>

I guess nobody had the “consent talk” with Confused.com?

That’s not my name!

Error message "Please enter a name between 2 and 30 letters long..." when Dan enters "Q" as his surname.
Somebody needs to brush up on their falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Honestly, I’m used to my unusual name causing trouble by now and I know how to work around it in the way that breaks the fewest systems (I can even usually get airline tickets without too much difficulty nowadays). But these kinds of (arbitrary) restrictions must frustrate folks like Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele.

I guess their developers didn’t realise that this blog post was parody?

Also, that’s not my title!

This one, though, pisses me off:

Animation showing title selector with options "Mr", "Mrs", "Miss", and "More...". Clicking "More..." reveals three more: "Ms", "Dr (Male)" and "Dr (Female)"
As everybody knows, there are only six titles, and two of them are “Dr”.

This is a perfect example of why your forms should ask for what you actually want to know, not for what you think people want to tell you. Just ask!

  1. If you want to know my gender, ask for my gender! (I’m a man, by the way.)
    I don’t understand why you want to know – after all, it’s been illegal since 2012 to risk-assess/price car insurance differently on the grounds of gender – but maybe you’ve got a valid reason. Which hopefully you’ll tell me in a tooltip. Like you’re using it as a (terrible checksum) when you check my driving license details, that’s fine!
  2. If you want to know my title, ask for my title! (I prefer not to use one, but if you must use one I’d prefer Mx.)
    This ought to be an optional field, of course, and ideally you want a free text input or else you’ll always have missed somebody (Lord, Reverend, Prince, Wing Commander…). It’s in your interests because I’m totally going to pick at random otherwise. Today I’m a Ms.

Consistency? Never heard of it.

It’s not a big thing, but if you come up with a user interface paradigm like “clicking More… shows more buttons”, you ought to stick to it.

Animation of marital statuses: clicking "More..." shows a dropdown instead of more buttons.
Maybe their internal style guide says “a More… button with three additional options should use buttons, but four additional options should be a drop-down”. But it seems more-likely that they just don’t have one.

Again, I’m not sure exactly what all of this data is used for, nor why there’s a need to differentiate between married couples and civil partnerships, but let’s just assume this is all necessary and legitimate and just ask ourselves: why are we using drop-downs now for “More…”? We were using buttons just a second ago!

"How many cars are at your home?" has a "More..." box that shows more buttons.
This was just crying out for a type-in field. But I guess the same developer who did the “Title” question did this one too, and wanted to show off the fancy “more buttons” control they’d written. (Imaginary style guide be damned!)

What’s my occupation again?

There’s so much to unpack in the “occupation” part of the form that I’m not even sure where to begin. Let’s just pick out a few things:

What type of student are you? List of options, many of which intersect.
I never answered a question this hard even in the exams I did when I was a student. Why do we care where students live… except if they’re postgrads? If I’m a mature student studying a postgraduate course in medicine while living at home with my parents… which of the five possible options should I pick? And, again: what difference could it conceivably make?

The student thing is just the beginning, though. You can declare up to two jobs, but if the first one is “house person/parent” you can’t have a second one. If you’re self-employed, that has to be your first job even though the guidance says that the one you spend most time on must be the first one (this kind of thing infuriated me when I used to spend 60% of my work time employed, 20% self-employed, and 20% studying).

I’m not saying it’s easy to make a form like this. I know from experience that it’s not. I am saying that Confused.com make it look a lot harder than it is.

Tooltip reading "Please choose the employment status that reflects the majority of the work you do. For example if you are a house person and have a part time job of 5 hours a week, you should select 'House person/parent' as your primary job.
Well that clears everything up. Also, I think you mean “houseperson”, unless you’re referring to somebody who is half-house/half-person, like some kind of architectural werewolf.

What do you mean, you live with your partner?

At a glance, this sounds like a “poly world problem”, but hear me out:

Relationship to policy holder: Living together (couple) results in the error "The driver's marital status must be Living With Partner" if their relationship to the proposer is Living Together (Couple)".
What you’re seeing here is a reference-identity error. I can’t possibly be living together with somebody as a couple if their marital status isn’t “Living With Partner”.

I put Ruth‘s martial status as married, because she’s married to JTA. But then when it asked how she was related to me, it wouldn’t accept “Living together (couple)”.

Relationship to proposer question with 'spouse' option but not 'living with partner'.
If I put Ruth as the primary policyholder (proposer) though, I don’t even get the option of “living together (couple)” to describe her relationship with me. ‘Cos it’s physically impossible to have a partner and be married, right?

Even if you don’t think it’s odd that they hide “living with partner” button as an option to describe a married person’s relationship to somebody other than their spouse… you’ve still got to agree that it’s a little bit odd that they don’t hide the “spouse” button. In other words, this user interface is more-okay with you having multiple spouses than it is with you having a spouse and an unmarried partner!

And of course this isn’t just about polyamorous folks: there are perfectly “normal” reasons that a person might end up confused by this interface, too. For example a separated (but not yet divorced) couple, one of whom has a new partner (it’s not even inconceivable that such a pair might share custody of a car). Also interesting is the fact that the form doesn’t care about the gender of your spouse (it doesn’t ask for “husband” or “wife”) but does care about the gender of your parent, child, or sibling. What gives?

Half a dozen easy fixes. Go for it, Confused.com.

Given that their entire marketing plan for most of the last two decades has been that they reduce customer confusion, Confused.com’s user interface leaves a lot to be desired. As I’ve mentioned before – and speaking as a web developer that’s been in the game for longer than their company has – it’s not necessarily easy to get this kind of thing right. But you can improve a form like this, a little at a time. And every little win counts for something: a more-satisfied returning customer, perhaps, or a new word-of-mouth recommendation.

Or you can just let it languish and continue to have the kind of form that people mock on the public Internet.

It’ll be a year until I expect to comparison-shop for car insurance again: let’s see how they get on, shall we?

Update (21 January 2021): Confused.com Respond!

I didn’t expect to receive any response to this post: most organisations don’t when I call-out the problems with their websites (not least because I’m more than a little bit sarcastic about it!). I never heard back from the Digital Climate Strike folks, for example, when I pointed out that their website was a great example of exactly the kind of problem they were protesting. But Confused.com passed on my thoughts to Product Manager Gareth who took a look at them and gave me a £20 Amazon gift card by way of thanks. Nice one, Confused.com!

Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta title showing picture of two men and a woman hugging the outline of a baby

Sara’s back! You might remember a couple of years ago she’d shared with us a comic on her first year in a polyamory! We’re happy to have her back with a slice of life and a frank n’ real conversation about having kids in her Poly Triad relationship.

This sort of wholesome loving chat is just the thing we need for the start of 2021.

Start your year with a delightful comic about the author negotiating possible future children in a queer polyamorous triad, published via Oh Joy Sex Toy. Sara previously published a great polyamory-themed comic via OJST too, which is also worth a look.

New Blood Donation Rules Better, I Suppose

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So the NHS blood donation rules are changing again. And while they’re certainly getting closer, they’re still not quite hitting the bullseye yet.

That’s great. Prior to 2011 men who’d ever had sex with men, as well as women who’d had sex with such a man within the last 6 months, were banned from donating blood. That rule clearly spun out of the AIDS hysteria of the 1980s and generally entrenched homophobia. It probably did little to protect the recipients of blood, and certainly did a lot to increase the stigma experienced by non-straight men.

A shooting target with a great many holes.
You throw enough policies at a problem, eventually one will get close-enough, right?

The 2011 change permitted donation by men who’d previously had sex with men… so long as they hadn’t done so within the last year. Which opened the doors to donation by a lot of men: e.g. bisexual men who’d been in relationships exclusively with women, gay men who’d been celibate for a period, etc. It still wasn’t great, but it was a step in the right direction.

So when I saw that the rules were changing to better target only risky behaviours, rather than behaviours that are so broad-brush as to target identities, I was initially delighted. Evidence-based medicine, you say? For the win.

A nurse wearing gloves uses a hyperdermic needle to take a blood sample from a patients' arm, as seen from over the patient's shoulder.
Go on! Stick it in me! I’ll still be able to give blood, right?

But… it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The new rules prohibit blood donation regardless of gender by people who’ve had sex with more than one person in the last three months.

Diagram showing a relationship between Andre and Brandon (married), and between Carlos and Brandon (partners). Andre and Carlos are now allowed to give blood, but Brandon still can't.
Sorry Brandon, we only want Andre and Carlos’ blood.

So if for example if there’s a V-shaped relationship consisting of three men, who only have sex within their thruple… two of them are now allowed to give blood but the third isn’t? (This isn’t a contrived example. I know such a thruple.)

Stranger still: if you swap Brandon in the diagram above for a woman then you get a polycule that’s a lot like mine, but the woman in the middle used to be allowed to give blood… and now can’t! My partner Ruth is in exactly the position: her situation hasn’t changed, but because she’s been in a long-term relationship with exactly two people she’s now not allowed to give blood. Wot?

On the whole, this rule change is an improvement. We’re getting closer to a perfect answer. But it’s amusing to see where the policy misses again and excludes donors who would otherwise be perfectly viable.

Update: as this is attracting a lot of attention I just wanted to remind people that the whole discussion is, of course, a lot more complicated than can be summarised in a single, short, opinionated blog post. Take a look at the FAIR steering group’s recommendations and compare to the government’s press release.

Update #2: justifying choice of words – “AIDS hysteria” refers specifically to the media (and to a lesser extent the policy) reactions to the (very real, very devastating) pandemic. For a while there it was perfectly normal to see (often misguided, sometimes homophobic) scaremongering news coverage suggesting that everybody was at enormous risk from HIV.

Human Tapestry – Episode 1

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For the first episode of the Human Tapestry, I talked to Dan, a bisexual man who lives in Oxford, England, with his partner and her husband in what he describes as a “polyamorous V-shaped thingy”. Listen as we talk about relationships, identities, the “bi-cycle”, and various forms of vegetarianism.

Fellow Automattician Mike has just launched his new podcast, exploring the diversity of human experience of relationships, sexuality, attraction, identity, gender, and all that jazz. Earlier this year, I volunteered myself as an interviewee, but I had no idea that I’d feature in the opening episode! If hearing people in your ears is something you like to do, and you’re interested in my journey so-far of polyamory and bisexuality, have a listen. And if you’re not: it might still be worth bookmarking the show for a listen later on – it could be an interesting ride.

Possibly SFW, depending on your work. Specific warnings:

  • Some swearing, including use of a homophobic slur (while describing the experience of being a victim of homophobia)
  • Frank discussion of my relationship history (although with greater anonymity than appears elsewhere on this blog)
  • Annoying squeaky chair sounds in the background (I’ve replaced that chair, now)
  • Skimming-over-the-details of specific events, resulting in an incomplete picture (with apologies to anybody misrepresented as a result)

Caveats aside, I think it came out moderately well; Mike’s an experienced interviewer with a good focus on potentially interesting details. He’s also looking for more guests, if you’d like to join him. He says it best, perhaps, with his very broad description of what the show’s about:

If you have a gender, have attractions (or non-attractions) to certain humans (or all humans), or have certain practices (or non-practices) in the bedroom (or elsewhere), we’d love to talk to you!

Go listen over there or right here.

‘There’s zero evidence that it’s worse for children’

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“Even at a young age, I was able to grasp the concept that my mum and dad could love more than one person,” he says. “The only thing I’ve found challenging about having three adults in my family is getting away with things, because it means more people to check up on you, to make sure you did your chores. But I also have more people around to give me lifts here and there, to help with homework and to come to my lacrosse games. The saying ‘raised by a village’ definitely applies to me. I feel like a completely normal teenager, just with polyamorous parents.”

Yet another article providing evidence to support the fact that – except for the bigotry of other people – there are no downsides to being a child of polyamorous parents. Nicely-written; I’ve sent a copy of Alan for the Poly In The Media blog.

We’re moving from Stage 2 to Stage 3 polyamory

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At last week’s Rocky Mountain Poly Living conference in Denver, Leanna Wolfe — a poly anthropologist and sexologist active in the movement almost since its birth in the 1980s — spoke on what she called the three historical stages of polyamory in Western culture.

Her Stage 1 was mostly male-centric (my paraphrase). She described it as running through the Oneida Colony and other utopian communities of the 19th century through the free-love beliefs and attitudes that exploded in the 1960s.

Stage 2 has been what we call the modern poly movement: strongly feminist in its origins and growth, born in the mid-1980s and running until more or less now. Its founders, organizers, media spokespeople, bloggers, podcasters, book authors and opinion leaders have been mostly women (the ratio by my count is about 3 to 1). Its ideology has been gender-egalitarian, communication-centric, and consent-based since before consent culture was a thing. Like Stage 1, Stage 2 has been something of a counterculture that sees itself apart from mainstream society.

The current Stage 3 is the mainstreaming of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) in its many forms, including polyamory, into the general culture. This shift is well under way and bodes to take over the conversation in coming years — for better and for worse, as I’ve been speechifying about since 2008.

Does this make those of us who’ve been doing polyamory for ages “poly hipsters”?

“You Me Her” Season 4 premiers, and other polyamory on TV

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The “polyromantic comedy” series You Me Her opens its fourth season tonight (Tuesday April 9) at 10 on AT&T’s Audience Network. There is no other show like it on television.

Season 1 was about a troubled couple who, independently, fell for the same third person by way of comic flukes: a novelty gimmick. But creator/producer John Scott Shepherd soon realized that the show was onto something bigger. Season 2 began straight off with the three together in a serious, all-around polyamorous relationship, and things have grown from there.

Life, of course, hasn’t been easy for them. Tonight’s opening of Season 4 is titled “Triangular Peg, Meet Round World.” Season 5 is already scheduled for 2020.

Joy! I loved the first three seasons of You Me Her, admittedly while – during the first couple of seasons at least – simultaneously bemoaning how long it took the characters to learn lessons that my polycule(s) solved in far shorter order. I was originally watching it with Ruth and JTA but they lagged and I ran ahead, and I really enjoyed this first episode of season 4 too.

Bald Eagle Trio Seen Taking Turns Caring For Eggs In Illinois Refuge

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Eagle1 webcam showing Starr with Valor I and Valor II

So… two eagles, Valor I (male) and Hope (female) raised some chicks in a nest. Then Valor II (another male) came along and tried to displace Valor I, but he wouldn’t go, so the pair of them both ultimately cooperated in raising Hope’s chicks, even after Hope was driven away by some other eagles. Later, another female, Starr, turned up and Valor I and Valor II are collectively incubating three eggs of hers in the nest.

I’ve known (human) polyamorous networks with origin stories less-complicated than this.

Happy Metamour Appreciation Day, JTA

Apparently the NCSF (US) are typing to make 28 February into Metamour Day: a celebration of one’s lover’s lovers. While I’m not convinced that’ll ever get Hallmark’s interest, I thought it provided a good opportunity to sing the praises of my metamour, JTA.

JTA and Annabel looking into a cabinet at the British Museum.
This is a man who knows how to use Greek myths and legends to add magic to his daughter’s museum visit.

I first met JTA 15 years ago at Troma Night XX, when his girlfriend Ruth – an attendee of Troma Night since its earliest days the previous year – brought him along and we all mocked his three-letter initialism. Contrary to our previous experience, thanks to Liz, of people bringing boyfriends once but never again (we always assumed that we scared them off), JTA became a regular, even getting to relive some of the early nights that he’d missed in our nostalgic 50th event. Before long, I felt glad to count him among my friends.

We wouldn’t become metamours until 3½ years later when a double-date trip to the Edinburgh Fringe turned into a series of (alcohol-assisted) confessions of nonmonagamous attractions between people present and a the ocassionally-controversial relationships that developed as a result. Polyamory has grown to get a lot more media coverage and general acceptance over the last couple of decades, but those of us in these kinds of relationships still face challenges, and during the times that bigots have made it hardest for us – and one period in 2017 in particular – I’ve been so very glad to have JTA in my corner.

JTA delivering the 2018 Three Rings Christmas Quiz.
Three Rings’ Quizmaster General at work.

Almost 13 years ago I described JTA thusly, and I stand by it:

You have a fantastic temper which you keep carefully bottled away and of which you draw out only a little at a time and only where it is genuinely justly deserved. Conversely, your devotion to the things you love and care about is equally inspiring.

But beyond that, he’s a resourceful jury-rigger, a competent oarsman, and a man who knows when it’s time to throw a hobbit into the darkness. He’s a man who’ll sit in the pub and talk My Little Pony with me and who’ll laugh it off when he gets mistaken for my father.

We’d be friends anyway, but having a partner-in-common has given us the opportunity for a closer relationship still. I love you, man: y’know, in the Greek way. Happy metamour appreciation day.

Hello, Friendly Insurance Salesman!

Hello, friendly insurance salesman I spoke to earlier today! I’ve been expecting you. Also: sorry.

JTA, Ruth, and Dan at JTA and Ruth's wedding.
Here are the people you just sold car insurance to.

I’ve been expecting you because you seemed so keen to finish your shift and search for me and, with my name, I’m pretty easy to find. I knew that you planned to search for me because after I caused so much trouble for your computer systems then, well, I probably deserved it.

I’m sorry that I have such an awkward name and that you had to make your computer system work around it. At least it handled it better than Equifax’s did, and you were far friendlier about it than the Passport Office were. It’s an awkward name, yes, but mostly only because programmers are short-sighted when it comes to names. And I say that as a programmer.

I’m sorry that my unusual relationship structure made your computer system do a double-take. My partner Ruth can’t have a husband as well, can she not? Try telling her that! Don’t feel bad: you’re not even the first person this last fortnight to get confused by our uncommon arrangement, and even where my name doesn’t break computer systems, my relationship status does: even the census can’t cope. I’m sure people must assume we’re insanely radical but we’re honestly pretty boring: just like any other family, just with more love. Don’t believe me? We have spreadsheets. You can’t get more boring than that.

I’m sorry that the email address I gave you looked like a typo and you felt you had to check it thrice. It wasn’t, it’s just that I give a different email address to every company I deal with.

I’m sorry that what should have been a click-click-done exercise came down to a live chat session and then a phone call. I don’t mean to be more work for people.

John points to Arthur, our car
“Which car are we insuring, little fella’?” // “THE RED ONE!”

But thank you for being friendly. And useful. And generally awesome. I expected a painful process, perhaps because that’s what I’d had from my last insurer. You, on the other hand (and your Live Chat colleague who I spoke to beforehand) were fantastic. Somehow you were more-pleasant, more-competent, and represent better value than the insurer we’re coming from, so thank you. And that’s the real reason that I hope you’ll follow through on the suggestion that you search for me by name: because you deserve a pat on the back.

So thanks. But yeah: sorry.

Partner’s husband dropped car at garage.
Garage calls me to say it’s ready.

“My partner will pick it up,” I say.
“The other guy said his wife would pick it up?” they reply.

Pause.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

#awkward #polyamory #moment