2021iv9, Friday: (Not) getting things done.

Has productivity fallen because we’re all doing things we’re just not that good at? And how tech perverts language.

Short thought: Once upon a time, the BBC had a specialist expenses unit in Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, journalists run up some fairly bizarre expenses from time to time, and the unit could handle all of them. Legend was you could send them a photo of a receipt written in Coptic and scratched in the whitewash on the wall of a house, and someone in the team would dredge up a memory of John Simpson having done something similar in the 80s and find a way to process it.

This, of course, cost money. So it was shut down about 20 years ago, outsourced and standardised, and therefore became entirely useless. The result: a lot of stressed reporters spending foolish amounts of time trying to work out how to file expenses instead of, you know, reporting.

This came to mind when reading a piece from Tim Harford earlier this week. Tim (whose praise I’ve sung before), wonders whether the lack of productivity increases is because all of us “knowledge workers” are doing loads of stuff we’re not actually that good at, rather than the things we’re in fact meant to apply our finely-honed brains to; and because the organisations we work within tend not to have terribly good systems for managing workflow.

One culprit, of course, is email. I shudder when I see someone’s phone screen with a little red spot saying they’ve got 32,483 unread messages. As someone who – while a long way off Inbox Zero – nonetheless reads, acts upon, defers or deletes everything as soon as it comes in, it makes me physically ill. But I understand how it happens: the sheer amount of stuff hitting this single channel can rapidly become unmanageable. And I don’t think things like Slack are an answer: it’s just yet another inbox, for the most part.

If I’m honest, I think the main problem is that there’s an organisational equivalent of the Dunbar number. The Dunbar number is the idea that the practical optimum number of people in a community (whether physical or virtual) is about 150 – the number where there are enough people to have a range of views, skills and experiences, but where you can still know everyone. For work, though, I think it’s a lot smaller: maybe a dozen at most. Yet most people who work in anything but the smallest of business are blizzarded with information about a range of things that simply aren’t really that important to them.

It’s one of the reasons I find the idea of one day going back to a paycheque far less appealing than I thought it would, before I jumped into this world of self-employed advocacy. These days, I’m part of a Chambers which only just goes into 3 digits. But usually I’m working in teams which max out at half a dozen: solicitors, client and maybe one other barrister. Yes, I’ve got several such projects going at any one time; but still, my signal-to-noise ratio across all forms of communication is far, far higher than it used to be.

I’m sure some businesses get this right. Information that people need when they need it goes in intranets or elsewhere, rather than in emails. Announcements are corralled into groups, rather than put out willy-nilly. CC and BCC are ruthlessly suppressed. Meetings – and the vast paper-counts that have to be read first – are pruned.

It’s just that I never worked in one. One reason why I’d hate to go back.


Someone is right on the internet: Thinking about the Dunbar number makes me recall something I read by John Naughton a few weeks ago. Back in the days when I was an investigator, it was always great to discover that a target was promiscuous when it came to Facebook friends. (Of course, these days Facebook isn’t anywhere near as useful a tool for social network mapping, but it still has its place – certainly for people over 25 or so.) The reason being, it was often possible to back into someone’s friend lists via one of their other friends, whose privacy settings might well be less rigorously enforced.

Despite being something of a geek, I’ve long loathed this use of the word “friend”, as I do the word “like”. (I got exceptionally pissed off when Twitter dropped stars in favour of likes. I used to star things as a way of denoting them as worth hanging onto. Much of that I didn’t “like” in any meaningful way.)

But John put it better than me:

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

Spot on.


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2021iii29, Monday: Wad some Pow’r…

Why condemning a little less and understanding a little more leads to better advocacy, and better humanity. Plus: 20 years of a timeless operating system. And woodblock prints to take your breath away.

Short thought: I can date the birth of my fundamental politics to two things. The first was when we moved from Hertfordshire to just outside Stoke-on-Trent in 1987 (I was 16) and I came face to face for the first time with the destruction that government policy had wrought, knowingly, on people’s lives over the past near-decade. The second was in 1993, with a single phrase uttered by the prime minister of the day. It was John Major, now a Bencher of my Inn (the Middle Temple) who – in a country rocked (rightly) by the conviction of two 10-year-olds for the murder of a child far younger than themselves – told a Sunday newspaper that it was time to:

Condemn a little more and understand a little less.

To be fair to Major, who since leaving Number 10 has proved to be one of the saner, calmer and more thoughtful and understated politicians of my experience, he wasn’t saying understanding had to go altogether. Not for him – then or now – the blood-soaked hang-and-flog tendencies so common in the Tory party, and particularly in its current Home Secretary.

But still, it rankled then, and it rankled now. Still more did it reek to me after 9/11, when so often efforts to understand what drove such attacks was labelled almost as treachery. 

The mistake, as so often, was to confuse empathy with sympathy. To empathise, appreciated correctly, is to strive to see the world as another sees it. To understand a worldview. To see what drives someone to behave as they do.

This is not sympathy. Tout comprendre, ce n’est pas tout pardonner. It’s not agreeing with the person in question. One can empathise and still loathe, whole-heartedly, what someone does and why. 

Now, I admit I may not be the poster child for empathy. I’m as short of it as anyone else, on some days. But personally and professionally, I prize it – perhaps as a supreme virtue, from which wisdom flows.

Personally, because – as Sherry Turkle put it in a recent interview – it’s a survival mechanism. It saves you from seeing only the worst in people. It can show you that some behaviour you’ve interpreted as simple malice may have a deeper driver; something you can understand, so that it stops eating away at you and sets you free.

And professionally because, first as a journalist, then as an investigator, and now as an advocate, I’ve always been an asker of questions. It simply isn’t possible to do that successfully without empathising with the subject of the questioning. (Just ask anyone who’s any good at interrogation.) Be it an interview or a cross-examination, step one is to try to see the narrative as the other sees it. And only then craft the questions to take you where you need to go: be it facts, knowledge or the raw material for the argument you need to make. If you can’t empathise, you’ll get nowhere. 

So yes. Just as I mistrust anyone who’s certain, I mistrust anyone who refuses to show empathy. There’s something fundamentally inhuman about such a person. As Pratchett (I think) once said, true evil begins when you start treating people as things. And a lack of empathy is at the heart of that. 

Put more simply: Robert Burns, bless the Immortal Memory, was right


All our yesterdays: Other than the BBC Micro my folks bought me when I was a kid, I’ve only ever owned Macs. Between me and my beloved, we’ve probably had a couple of dozen. I’m comfortable on Windows, but I live in Mac OS. I have done since my college days, when my first modern computing was on the old-school all-in-one Mac SE, and continuing on from the first one I ever owned, a PowerBook Duo.

So I remember the travails of the late 1990s, when Mac OS was showing its age and Apple was trying and failing – often flailing! – to find a replacement. (Jason Snell tells that story wellvenerable Apple site Tidbits does too. Not for nothing is Copland a bit of a trigger word for those of us around at the time.)

That came in 1999, with the developer previews of the brand-new Mac OS X (pronounced “ten”, although admittedly only by geeks and long-time Mac-heads). It was slow, it was buggy, and it was amazing. The first market release of OS X 10.0 Cheetah (the first of the big cat nicknames that lasted right through to 10.8 in 2012) came 20 years ago last week. 

Lord, the memories. So much has changed – when you look at the candy stripes and brushed metal in the original, the recollection can be rather painful. But as MG Siegler notes, the fundamentals of the interface really haven’t changed that much. “Beautiful,” he calls them. “Timeless.” I’d agree.

For those in need of a retrospective, Ars Technica does well. For the real nerds, the immense, and terrifyingly detailed, reviews by John Siracusa of each release from the first DP in 1999 through to Yosemite in 2014 are worth a look. Memory lane, people. Memory lane.


Someone is right on the internet: I’ve written before about Brain Pickings, the weekly email on a Sunday which rarely fails to produce something thought-provoking, heart-filling and beautiful. Yesterday’s email was all that, and more.

My love of woodblock prints is no secret either, so perhaps it’s inevitable that this email should suit me. But honestly, I don’t think you need to know anything about woodblock prints, or even ever to have seen one, for these to take your breath away. They’re by Kawase Hasui (I can’t write his name forename first; as a Japanese speaker, it feels disrespectful), made a Living National Treasure in 1956 the year before his death.

Words can’t describe. Please – just enjoy.

(I should add that Kawase – whose personal and family names, wonderfully, both have water characters in them, somehow fitting for an artist in a medium whose most famous expression, ukiyo-e, translates as “pictures from the floating world” – isn’t the only beauty in yesterday’s email. There were wonderful musings at the bottom of the message about the importance of treating love not as a noun, something you receive and which you must seek out, but as an active verb, a practice to which you commit yourself. A simple grammatical shift, but with such depth of meaning…)


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