Archive — Current affairs

The Technology God is fakeGerry McGovern

In the grand delusion that is Brexit, the grandest delusion of all is the Brexiteers’ fawning adoration of the Technology God. According to Brexiteers, the Technology God will banish all problems, particularly those associated with the border on the island of Ireland. Grand Boffo Johnson ascended the mountain, and the Technology God conveyed the message that there existed no need for a border because the Technology God would solve everything. No evidence, no detail required, just faith in the Technology God.

Outsourcing your decision-making to vague promises from technology is a way of avoiding thinking about the people your policies will impact.

Technology isn’t neutral. It’s only as good as the intentions behind it. Technology is created by humans. It impacts humans. If you’re creating the technology, you must think of the impact on your fellow humans.

As people say in the technology world, “garbage in, garbage out”.

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Boris Johnson’s secret plan to gather “targeted and personalised” data before BrexitAlex SpenceBuzzFeed News

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has secretly ordered the Cabinet Office to turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit, BuzzFeed News has learned.

In a move that has alarmed Whitehall officials, the prime minister has instructed departments to share data they collect about usage of the GOV.UK portal so that it can feed into preparations for leaving the European Union at the end of next month.

This is why I am unlikely ever to work for a government.

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Do MotoGP riders get depressed?Mat OxleyMotor Sport Magazine

Johann Zarco listening to a mechanic

In the wake of Johann Zarco’s request to be released from his contract with KTM, Mat Oxley uncovers a side of MotoGP riders not often talked about.

Do MotoGP riders — surely some of the strongest people on Earth — get depressed? Of course they do! Motorcycle racing may be a macho game, but machismo never stopped anyone getting depressed, quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s also fascinating to see Valentino Rossi talking so openly about his mental health issues when he raced for Ducati.

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Academia uneasy with lack of diversity on ‘dude walls’ of honourNell GreenfieldboyceNPR

A 'dude wall' featuring several portraits of white old men

On the campaign to remove — or make less prominent — walls of portraits of old white men from academia’s past.

“It just sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men,” says [neuroscientist Leslie] Vosshall. “I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, ‘What kind of message are we sending with these oil portraits and dusty old photographs?'”

While defenders of dude walls warn of erasing history, the counterpoint is powerful:

…some argue that the old portraits themselves have erased history, by glorifying white men who hold power while ignoring the contributions to science and medicine made by women and people of colour.

Celebrations of individuals in this way always make me wary. It seems to be particularly common in higher education, where awards and buildings are routinely named after white males.

But very few breakthroughs are truly the work of a single individual. The people honoured in this way are likely the people most adept at taking all the credit for other people’s work.

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JoggingRichard Dawson

2020 cover

A song I heard on the radio this week that made my ears prick up. I wasn’t previously aware of Richard Dawson. But this is a brilliant song — dark, funny, meaningful, relatable, of our time. Once again I’m beginning to think that the most interesting music is actually coming from rock music for a change. Consider the album pre-ordered.

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Why did the UK become a failed state?Simon Wren-Lewismainly macro

This post is about how a policy (crashing out of the EU) that will do nearly everyone harm and some great harm seems to have considerable, albeit still minority, support…

You either have to assume that a third of the population has gone mad, or instead see this as a fundamental failure of information. The UK is a failed state because the producers of information have made it fail.

According to Simon Wren-Lewis, this information problem is being facilitated by the media.

In one sense, the idea that people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision is nothing new. As I’ve written in the past, ignorance is inevitable.

But there does seem to be something particular going on in Britain right now that is causing something even worse than mere ignorance.

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Can everyone be excellent?Alfie Kohn

A very good piece about why fears around grade inflation and the like are spurious. Even if everyone meets high standards, people continue to call for the standards to be made higher still. Moreover, people exhibit a damaging compulsion to rank.

But boy, do we love to rank. Worse, we create artificial scarcity such as awards — distinctions manufactured out of thin air specifically so that some cannot get them. Every contest involves the invention of a desired status where none existed before and none needs to exist. This creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming the system, and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.

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The one thing about your spouse’s personality that really affects your careerAndrew O’ConnellHarvard Business Review

Two pairs of sandals

It has been found that having a conscientious spouse helps lead to an increase in income, number of promotions and job satisfaction. Why?

First, conscientious spouses handle a lot of household tasks, freeing employees to concentrate on work (“When you can depend on someone, it takes pressure off of you,” Solomon told me).

Or, put another way, if someone else is doing all the dirty work at home, it gives you the privilege to focus on your career.

I wonder if there’s research to say what the effect is if both people in a relationship share household duties equally. Hopefully if both partners are conscientious, both feel the benefits in their careers.

Support each other. Teamwork! 🐌🐢

You can support your spouse in supporting you. If you depend on his or her reliability, diligence, and goal orientation, don’t take those traits for granted. Maybe you’ve been standing heroically at the bow for so long that you’ve forgotten how much effort it takes to row. So sit down and row for a while.

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The fate of the Tories now rests with a new leader — Jo Swinson of the Liberal DemocratsStephen BushNew Statesman

Jo Swinson waving

Why the new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson may be more pivotal to the future of the Conservatives than Boris Johnson is.

[W]hile the Liberal Democrat revival is taking Labour’s votes, it is costing the Conservatives more seats. Of the 82 seats that the Lib Dems hope to make their major targets, just three — Sheffield Hallam, Leeds North West and Streatham — were won by Labour in 2017.

On Jo Swinson, for what it’s worth, I’m very pleased that she is the new Liberal Democrat leader. I voted for her this time, and actually I really hoped she would become leader when Vince Cable did (although I recognise it wasn’t the right time for her).

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The return on investment of design-led changeDavid AyreFutureGov

How design can be used instead of traditional change management methods.

In the same way that design-led change isn’t just about hiring designers, it also shouldn’t be thought of as a specialist or localised resource (like a design team). Creativity and thinking about design as a state of mind is more a competence that should be part of the fabric of every 21st-century organisation.

My thinking on this has changed a lot over the years. In the past I might have thought that having a strong design team was the way forward. But that’s just creating another silo.

Now I see the real job as finding ways to empower the entire organisation to think like a designer, and help them make the right decisions for the right reasons.

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Comparing service design and business designBen Holliday

Business design can be very different to service design if it’s focused on the wrong things. But Ben Holliday notes:

Service design is business design when we focus on and care about designing for both internal staff and external user experience together as front and back stage of how a service works.

All too often business design is narrowly self-serving. If it’s not focused on ultimately improving things for your users or customers, it will do damage in the long run.

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Building a design team from scratch in a large and complex organisationSimon Dixon

I especially like the points this article makes about why design needs to go beyond digital.

Even though I have worked primarily in digital teams, I have always believed in making things better not just digital. In health especially, we need to remember that people are complex human beings in a whole variety of circumstances and not simply a collection of user needs.

More food for thought as I begin thinking more about how we need to move beyond individual user needs and design for something that goes beyond that.

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How we tweet about BrexitJon WorthEuroblog

Person screaming

Jon Worth has noticed that the wrong sort of thing gets traction on Twitter. This isn’t a new insight, of course — and it’s not just about Brexit. But he suggests a solution.

Make judicious use of Twitter lists. Retweet sensible stuff instead of confirmation bias sustaining content. Retweet people who themselves have a small audience, and could do with more exposure.

I’ve often thought of this like eating your greens. I’ve found myself unfollowing people I agree with, if they have the wrong tone and a myopic viewpoint. I’d also suggest actively looking to follow people with different perspectives or those you disagree with. Engage with people who contribute meaningfully and respectfully.

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Photo — 2019-05-23

Poster: "Vote Liberal Democrat — Stop Brexit"

If you’re for the UK remaining in the EU, vote Liberal Democrat 🔶

The Liberal Democrats are the only party who have always committed to the UK remaining united with our neighbours in the EU.

The European Parliament may not have oversight of Brexit. But if you’re a remainer, you can’t afford to vote for Labour or the Conservatives. If you do, they will count your vote as a mandate for their unworkable and disastrous Brexit.

After the Tories lost over 1,300 seats in this month’s local elections, Theresa May and Labour interpreted it as a pro-Brexit vote:

I think there has been a very clear message from people to both main parties that they want us to get on and deliver Brexit, so I welcome comments from Jeremy Corbyn that he thinks we should be working to ensure we can deliver a deal.

This shows us how crystal clear we need to be in the message we send.

And before someone suggests voting for the SNP or the Greens, remember they want to take us out of the UK — which would automatically take us out of the EU — and would be even worse than Brexit anyway.

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Own it!Matt JukesNotbinary

On the incredible story about Hertz suing Accenture for a failed “digital transformation project”.

Alarm bells ring at the best of times when website redesigns are described as “digital transformation”. But to then completely outsource the product owner role — to the same management consultancy firm that was carrying out the redesign — underlines just how much the top brass seemingly didn’t get it.

Particularly important is this:

The private sector is NOT intrinsically better at these things than the public sector. Occasions like this and the TSB meltdown should never be celebrated but should surely be greeted by a wry smile by those of us who have been hearing about the incompetence of public service digital for years from some corners — and particularly why there was never any need to bring things in-house because all the expertise was with the big suppliers.

I would argue that this isn’t even just about digital. The idea that public sector organisations are inherently worse at anything than the private sector has long been spurious. Large organisations perhaps do find certain things more difficult — but in both the public and private sector.

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Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymoreJoshua BentonNieman Journalism Lab

"The Guardian (actually makes money now)"

How the Guardian finally started making a profit, in three steps.

With a functionally infinite supply of free news available, the relationship your reader has to you has to be a lot more like the one public radio listeners have with their favorite station. They’re not buying access; they’re supporting a cause.

I’d also add that the Guardian has one major advantage over almost every other publisher in the world. They uniquely decided not to go down the rabbit hole of autoplaying videos, pop-up adverts, and other infuriating ways of getting in the way of what the readers actually came for.

This week I visited the Scotsman website, and one of the ads inserted a nasty redirect that my browser told me was taking me to an untrustworthy site. There are lots of news sites that I simply can’t trust for this reason. The Guardian is one I can still trust.

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Change UK / TIG’s Twitter name gaffeSteerpikeThe Spectator

Change UK event

Change UK have changed their Twitter handle to something somehow even more incomprehensible. And in doing so, they have forgotten to protect the old account handle — meaning that someone campaigning for a hard Brexit now has control of it.

Even more unfortunately, anyone Googling the Independent Group to find out more about the newly formed party, will instead by directed to the hard Brexit account. And the party managed to lose its Twitter ‘blue tick’ which verifies that a user is genuine.

My trajectory of feelings about Change UK has gone from hope, to horror, to sheer anger. These incompetents are now actually hindering the pro-Europe cause.

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RecallPlaid

Polymer cover

A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.

The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:

The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.

Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.

* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:

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The cave paintings of BrexitDavid Allen GreenThe Law and Policy Blog

Cave painting

David Allen Green explains how the usual sources of information on British politics have been useless at explaining Brexit.

A Brexit historian with access only to the front parts of UK newspapers and to government publications would be like the classical historian convinced that the Romans were pre-occupied with crockery.

He notes that Brussels correspondents have been more informative than their Westminster counterparts. His point about Irish journalism providing better insights resonates with me as well. They’ve seemed much more switched on about certain aspects of the Brexit shitshow.

British politics is in a huge a mess at the moment. Is part of that down to the fact that British journalism has got stuck in a rut?

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The privilege of free time in Open SourceDries Buytaert

Caption: "Free time to contribute is a privilege."

Dries Buytaert makes a very good point here. Time is the scarcest resource we have. This is making open source a closed shop.

Today, I’ve come to understand that inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the “free time” it takes to contribute to Open Source.

He suggests some ways open source communities could take action on this.

Overall, being kinder, more patient and more supportive to others could go a long way in welcoming more people to Open Source.

The culture of coding seems nasty generally. I’m not sure if it’s specifically a problem with open source as opposed to developers generally.

But I always found it odd how unwelcoming, patronising and generally unhelpful people in open source communities (such as WordPress support forums) can sometimes be. Sometimes it doesn’t seem very open at all.

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I was a strong Brexiteer. Now we must swallow our pride and think againPeter OborneOpenDemocracy

UK and EU flags

Required reading, whether you are pro- or anti-EU, from a Brexiter who is seriously considering that he may have been wrong.

I don’t agree with all of it. But it is a crystal clear analysis.

Amid the increasingly hysterical attitude from significant elements of both sides of the debate, this is a highly valuable contribution. This is the standard of debate we should be aspiring to.

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People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the groundNeha Thirani BagriQuartz

Experimental Dutch traffic crossing

An interesting experiment to place pedestrian crossing signals on the ground, “where everyone is already looking”. The Netherlands seems to be the place for experimental road safety design (see also: the squareabout).

This has got to be an improvement on the modern fad of placing pedestrian crossing signals at chest height to the side, where they simply get blocked by other people, rather than across the road where everyone can see it.

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Photo — 2019-03-30

Burgundy European Union passport

It just so happened that my passport needed to be renewed this month. So I’ll have this burgundy European Union document for the next 10 years.

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Chuka Umunna reminds us that centrism is not liberalism — Jonathan Calder, Liberal England

Chuka Umunna reminds us that centrism is not liberalism — Jonathan Calder, Liberal England

I’ve viewed the formation of the Independent Group with a mixture of interest, mild hope, and mild horror. Chuka Umunna’s latest vanity missive has tipped the balance further towards the horror end.

Chuka Umunna wish to bring in compulsory national service for 16-year-olds is a reminder that proclaiming you are in the centre does not make you a Liberal.

Amid Brexit, supported by the leadership of both the Conservatives and Labour, both of those parties are moving in ever-more extreme directions. With extremist views on the rise, I had begun to think of myself as a moderate. But the ‘moderate’ tiggers are little more appealing.

This is a reminder that liberalism isn’t merely moderate or centrist. It is a distinctive worldview. This reminds us of how liberalism should sell itself.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are authoritarian parties. Our job as liberals is to rail against those tendencies, not to split the (often very little) difference between them.

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Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

An impressively thoughtful piece from the former Radio 4 controller, on why the BBC is struggling to remain unbiased amid Brexit.

One senior presenter put it like this: “We should encourage debate… while being more militant about our core approach—that we are fact-based, and question and test all sides of the debate. We should not be doing vanilla ‘on the one hand’ versus ‘on the other hand’ journalism. I am sympathetic to the arguments about the danger of ‘false equivalence,’ and think we should be clear about the weight of arguments. But if a substantial number of people believe, so to speak, that bananas are blue we have to treat that seriously. Seriously, but robustly.”

This article also briefly covers some of the limitations of TV news bulletins, and explains why in some aspects radio performs better. I do find it difficult to watch a bulletin like the 10 O’Clock News (I think I even watched the piece he mentions from Mansfield, with my head in my hands). In that format, it is impossible to cover anything in real depth — and that seems to be the true problem at the moment.

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The worst design of 2016 was also the most effective

Illustration of Donald Trump wearing a Make America Great Again hat

The worst design of 2016 was also the most effective — Diana Budds, Fast Company

Why Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hat, was a wildly successful design, despite being reviled by gatekeepers of good-taste design.

The “undesigned” hat represented this everyman sensibility, while Hillary [Clinton]’s high-design branding — which was disciplined, systematic, and well-executed — embodied the establishment narrative that Trump railed against and that Middle America felt had failed them. “The DIY nature of the hat embodies the wares of a ‘self-made man’ and intentionally distances itself from well-established and unassailable high-design brand systems of Hillary and Obama,” Young says. “Tasteful design becomes suspect… The trucker cap is as American as apple pie and baseball.”

This reminds me of the story that the most “tasteful” office spaces are less productive. When given a clean-looking office cubicle, people fill it with garden gnomes.

I don’t agree with the article’s premise that this challenges the idea of design thinking. Surely it means that Hillary Clinton’s designers simply didn’t do a good enough job at it (because nice typefaces ≠ design thinking).

But this does provide a challenge to the received wisdom of what good design is, and whether tasteful design is desirable.

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Why data is never raw — Nick Barrowman, the New Atlantis

A man checking dials

Why data is never raw — Nick Barrowman, the New Atlantis

Why it’s wrong and perhaps even dangerous to expect “raw data” to be neutral and strictly factual.

How data are construed, recorded, and collected is the result of human decisions — decisions about what exactly to measure, when and where to do so, and by what methods. Inevitably, what gets measured and recorded has an impact on the conclusions that are drawn.

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Why big companies squander brilliant ideas — Tim Harford

Why big companies squander brilliant ideas — Tim Harford

How inflexible organisational structure could be one of the main inhibitors of innovation. This article is full of fascinating examples, but I found the Sony example the most striking.

…the silo that produced the PlayStation had almost nothing to do with the silo that produced portable CD players. The Memory Stick Walkman was like the tank: it didn’t fit neatly into any category. To be a success, the silos that had been designed to work separately would have to work together. That required an architectural change that Sony tried but failed to achieve.

Seemingly, there’s no straightforward answer to this:

Kodak’s position may well have been impossible, no matter what managers had done. If so, the most profitable response would have been to vanish gracefully.

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How harmful is the net promoter score? — Jeff Sauro, MeasuringU

Someone using a screwdriver as a hammer

How harmful is the net promoter score? — Jeff Sauro, MeasuringU

A very useful contribution to the debate surrounding the usefulness/harmfulness of net promoter score. Jeff Sauro transcends the often polemical nature of the debate, by analysing actual research on the effectiveness of net promoter score.

The news still isn’t all that great for proponents of net promoter score. But at the same time, it’s not quite as bad as its detractors make out.

Kudos to Jeff Sauro for doing some actual research on this.

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Note — 2019-01-06

It’s 10 years since Woolworths closed down. I worked there at the time. To this day, the whole experience is among the most surreal of my life.

At the time, I wrote a lengthy series of blog posts detailing my own story of the goings-on around the failure of one of Britain’s most iconic businesses.

Being on the shop floor while a British institution collapsed around me taught me a bit about business. But it taught me a lot about people. Enjoy this look back.

(These used to be linked to each other using a WordPress plugin, but these were lost during a migration — so here they all are.)

  1. Woolworths: The curiously British US-based company
  2. Woolworths as it was known and loved, and neglected
  3. Woolworths: Childhood memories and adult gripes
  4. It wasn’t just the credit crunch
  5. The blunder of Woolworths
  6. Identity crisis
  7. The beginning of the end
  8. The nasty side of human nature
  9. Woolworths: Final thoughts and wrapping up

For more on Woolworths 10 years on from its collapse, check out Graham Soult’s excellent report.

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Samaritans — Idles

I’ve become obsessed with this song. It contains an important message that is beginning to be heard, but still needs to be heard more widely. This is a song for now.

Discovering Idles has felt a bit like discovering Pulp when they released Common People. Although 9-year-old me didn’t really understand what appealed to me about Pulp, now I think I do. Distinctive-sounding music, yes. But also lyrics that are interesting (a rarity in and of itself), and important, and for right now.

The first time I knowingly heard Idles it was when another song was played on the radio in the morning, Great. I remember sitting up in my bed, astonished at the lyrics. You don’t often hear songs that are so political, especially ones that actually hit the nail on the head — and say what I would want to say, but so much better.

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A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Image from last year's girl

A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Another perspective on the troubles faced by HMV. Lis Ferla echoes my thoughts on why bricks-and-mortar record stores of all sorts are a vital part of the music ecosystem.

But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix.

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No, we don’t really care about your privacy

No, we don’t really care about your privacy

“We value your privacy” have been the hollowest words of 2018. I am instantly suspicious of any website that displays a flashy pop-up about privacy. Like a small man with a fancy car, it looks like they’re compensating for something.

It’s what happens when you want to be seen to be GDPR compliant, rather than actually GDPR compliant.

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Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace

"Prime and punishment"

Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace

A fascinating article about the various dirty tricks and scams that independent retailers are playing on each other on Amazon Marketplace.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced…

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court…

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