Archive — Current affairs

Note — 2020-03-20

Me holding a bottle of Corona

Virtual birthday party — 9pm tonight

It’s my birthday today. But I couldn’t really be bothered to organise a physical get-together. Instead, I thought it would be fun to imagine there was some horrific virus that meant we couldn’t really leave the house much, and I had to celebrate it remotely.

Update: This will now take place at 9pm, not 7pm as before.

Join us at 9pm for 40 minutes of free Zoom-based party times.

Bring your own Corona.

1 comment

McKinsey: CEOs have no clue what chief design officers doMark WilsonFast Company

Picture of a hipster drinking coffee with headphones hanging of a massive Mac screen. I guess that's what a designer is.

Talk about designers “having a seat at the table” generally leaves me cold. But this useful article explains why it can matter — but why designers have a duty to do more than simply be at the table.

Evidence has long suggested that companies with a strong design focus are more successful. The example of Logitech outlined here bears that out.

But if some CEOs don’t understand the value of design, it’s up to designers to articulate it properly.

Comment

Coding is for everyone — as long as you speak EnglishGretchen McCullochWired

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, so there’s been a lot of pixels spilled on “the initial promises of the web”—one of which was the idea that you could select “view source” on any page and easily teach yourself what went into making it display like that.

This article makes a great point about how this promise only truly works if you can speak English.

The process described above is exactly how I learned HTML. The fact that I would have to use “color” instead of “colour” is a mildly amusing inconvenience. I hadn’t really considered before how it must feel if you don’t speak any English.

I don’t speak Russian, and assuming you don’t either, does <заголовок> and <заглавие> and <тело> and <п> still feel like something you want to tinker with?

Comment

How community politics became customer service politics (and then consumed British politics from within)Nick Barlow

A history of community politics, how it morphed to become people pointing at potholes, and ultimately undermined politics completely.

Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else…

Activism based around ideology, empowering people and giving them the ability to sort things out is hard, activism based around being the most efficient local busybody and delivering the most leaflets is comparatively easy.

I have often wondered about political leaflets that are all about a hodgepodge of local issues, but are strangely noncommittal about what should be done about them. All of the leaflets, in every colour, say largely the same noncommittal things about small-to-medium-sized local issues. They almost always fail to adequately explain why Candidate X is the person to deal with it.

It’s all so uninspiring. Perhaps we need to present some actual political ideas again.

Comment

Dutch “singing road” silenced after villagers complain: “I’m going nuts”Palko Karasz and Yonette JosephThe New York Times

A car driving over the musical rumble strips

This must be the most spurious “road safety” feature ever conceived.

A Dutch town decided to install rumble strips that are set at certain frequencies so that cars “play” the regional anthem as they drive over them.

This article focuses on the fact that this feature is driving residents crazy as they repeatedly have to hear this raspy version of the same melody all day (and night) long.

But surely the spurious justification is more deserving of ire.

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

Because, apparently, the melody would only play when drivers are driving at the right speed. Except, as officials concede later in the article, that’s not even true. If you drive at a different speed, the melody still plays — just at a different speed. Perhaps drivers may even speed up just to end the din more quickly.

What a terrible idea!

This article also contains a brilliant video from Tom Scott demonstrating an even more disastrous version of the same idea, in California.

1 comment

The strange death of libertarian EnglandChris DillowStumbling and Mumbling

Related to the idea that British people just aren’t interested in liberal ideas at the moment, Chris Dillow wonders whatever happened to right-libertarianism.

The Tories won on policies that repudiated many of their professed beliefs: a higher minimum wage; increased public spending; and the manpower planning that is a points-based immigration policy.

After outlining some reasons why this shift has occurred, he notes some less respectable explanations:

One is that we have lost the cast of mind which underpins right-libertarianism — that of an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge. We need freedom, thought [Friedrich] Hayek, because we cannot fully understand or predict society…

We live, however, in an age of narcissistic blowhards who are overconfident about everything. This is a climate which undervalues freedom.

Comment

Opera: Phantom of the TurnaroundHindenburg Research

Screenshot of one of Opera's predatory loan apps from the Google Play store

If you still have the Opera web browser installed anywhere, now might be the time to stop.

With its browser business in decline, cash flow deteriorating (and balance sheet cash finding its way into management’s hands…), Opera has decided to embark on a dramatic business pivot: predatory short-term lending in Africa and Asia.

The article goes on to outline evidence of some seriously dodgy practices. What a sad end to the Opera story.

Comment

Things Fall ApartMark O’Neill

This articulates something I’ve been pondering for a while. Is the current political climate the result of a gradual erosion of the unwritten rules of civil society?

It turns out that the Civil Society in Britain is built on very shaky foundations. In the past few months we have seen the illegal suspension of Parliament, an act that carried no consequences whatsoever; we have seen Civil Servants bullied out of their jobs by politicians who were then rewarded for their harassment by promotion and increased status; we have seen the government spend £100s of millions on trying to deny the consequences of its own policy on Brexit and, in doing so, do possibly irreparable damage to the global reputation of the UK.

The post also makes an interesting point about how the BBC covers the UK in a way that assumes it is a stable democracy, and turns a blind eye to developments that would see other countries being scrutinised heavily.

Leaders in the past were guided by a strong sense of right and wrong — doing what’s right in the name of stability. Those days are now gone.

Via Strategic Reading

1 comment

The complex task of simplicityPaul Taylor

Sainsbury's Basics food packaging - washing powder, flower, canned tomatoes

It is human nature to add things, making them more complex. This feels like you’re doing something, but actually you’re probably making the situation worse.

We see this in web design. People like adding pages to their websites because it feels productive. But actually, the most effective websites are the ones with fewer, simpler pages.

The same can be true for any design, including the way we structure our work.

We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance — they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.

Comment

It is easy to despair. But I say let’s foster hope insteadJo SwinsonLiberal Democrats

Jo Swinson

I found this a difficult election result to digest. Never would I have expected the Liberal Democrats to get fewer than 20 MPs, never mind with one fewer MP than at the last election.

Given that they increased their share of the vote, there is clearly a strategy problem at play. (My previous post suggests some serious organisational problems as well.) Uniquely, they increased their share of the vote in every region of the UK.

But it’s also difficult to escape the conclusion that voters are simply not interested in (or convinced by) liberal ideas at the moment.

It would be arrogant to assume that the voters are wrong. Yet, Jo Swinson was right to boldly stand up for liberal ideas of openness, tolerance and bringing communities together.

She is also right to highlight that Labour are every bit as dangerous as the other nationalist parties — the Conservatives and the SNP. Those parties are all dealing in the politics of easy answers — blaming others, and seeking to divide rather than unite people.

There’s a big challenge ahead. The ideas are not wrong, and we must fight for them. But liberals must figure out how to sell this story more convincingly.

1 comment

Photo — 2019-12-13

Jo Swinson's signature with a PS: "Remember, every single penny you donate will be doubled by a generous donor. Please donate today and help us paint Britain gold on the 12th December."

Today I’ve received a timely letter from the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. To give you a flavour, here’s the end of it.

2 comments

Why xHamster is so much better at content moderation than FacebookLux AlptraumOneZero

A clue on how social media can be better regulated, by looking at the porn industry.

Before anything can be posted to an adult site, it must be rigorously screened to make sure it’s not opening the site up to legal liability…

“Because we’re very aggressive in our patrol of content, the criminals know not to use us.”

It suggests that major social media services can have an active moderation policy and still “survive — even thrive”.

…given some of the horrors that the existing version of Facebook has unleashed, it’s worth considering whether a version of the site that had focused more on moderation and less on rapid growth might have been better for us all.

Comment

Labour’s broadband plan won’t work — but let’s have a national debate to find a plan that doesBryan GlickComputer Weekly Editor’s Blog

A balanced piece that considers the pros and cons of Labour’s proposal to nationalise Openreach and promise free broadband for all.

What’s notable is that the only reason we’ve reached this stage is because of the utter failure of BT to do this job properly (particularly in rural areas). It is constantly being “dragged kicking and screaming” to do the basics. This has left the UK needlessly lagging behind.

Still, they’ve got the Champions League rights, huh?

Comment

The Liberal Democrats need to stand firm if Corbyn is to be kept out of Downing StreetCharlotte HenryTheArticle

Jo Swinson campaigning with other Liberal Democrats

Why the Liberal Democrats are right to put candidates up against Labour.

Never mind that Labour would use its majority, should it get one, to negotiate a Brexit deal, and potentially campaign for it – to campaign for Brexit. This is an institutionally antisemitic organisation. It has, for years now, failed to tackle this issue. It is absolutely not suitable to be a party of government. The Liberal Democrats must play no part in helping put it there.

The idea that the Labour Party would be any less problematic than the Conservatives is deeply odd. Even beyond the frankly fanciful notion that Labour would put any effort into stopping Brexit, their appalling record on antisemitism makes them truly beyond the pale.

Comment

Photo — 2019-11-09

Blurred-out photo of Labour leaflets that don't mention Labour

Received two big leaflets from our local Labour MP. But you have to get the microscope out to find out which party he’s from. Maybe it’s to practice looking for their votes.

Also, zero mention of Brexit-enabling Jeremy Corbyn.

Comment

Agile is not a solved problemSam HogarthScott Logic

A reflection on the Agile Manifesto, 18 years on, “making it old enough to drink in pubs”.

The point about the “subtle use of language” in the original Agile Manifesto particularly resonated with me.

When you read it, its simplicity is striking, and it’s actually difficult to disagree with any of it.

The problem is, simple doesn’t sell textbooks, training or consultancy. So over time, agile has been bastardised to become this monstrosity (courtesy of Deloitte).

Deloitte's Agile Landscape v3 - an impenetrable mapping of agile methods depicted as a subway map

Comment

The tipping point: Who is best placed to do strategic design?Anish Joshi

If you can bear another article about whether non-designers should get involved in design work, this isn’t a bad one.

Designers — if you think strategic design is a realm reserved just for you, I’m afraid not.

Other professionals — if you think you can just pick up strategic design like any other general skill, then I’m afraid not.

…the best and most effective use and impact for many people, is actually just to incorporate design thinking techniques into their day jobs.

I have long held the view that user experience is best thought of not as a role, but as a mindset. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for professional designers and user researchers — there absolutely is. But anyone can adopt the techniques and set off on the journey to become more user-centred.

We should encourage more people to do so.

Via Katie Murrie.

Comment

Why much of the internet is closed off to blind peopleJames JeffreyBBC News

Visually impaired person using the web

The most notable thing about this article is the sorry list of weak excuses offered up by businesses who can’t be bothered to make their websites accessible.

“…a blind person can always ring Domino’s toll-free number and order that way…”
Why should they have to?
“…there is no clear objective guidance on what constitutes an ‘accessible’ website.”
O rly?
“The online environment was never intended to be covered by the ADA…”
Says who?

How about just doing the basics that will help include your customers, and your fellow human beings?

1 comment

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”.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

Comment

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).

Comment

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.

Comment