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Piano projection

My sister sometimes tells a story about sitting down to a General Studies exam and facing a question about how pianos work. ‘How am I supposed to know?’, she wondered, despite having had piano lessons.

This was in my mind as I read this fascinating FT article by Rhodri Marsden about a UK-based piano manufacturer. The pianos pictured in the article couldn’t be further from my personal taste, but never before had I thought about issues like the sound projection versus string tension:

Pianos are generally built to project sound rather forcefully (I’ve played a Steinway on the Barbican stage but it’s very different from what you want in a home piano), and that’s an issue Edelweiss has tackled head-on. “Concert grands in particular have high-tension strings and a very stiff, rigid soundboard, so the whole thing roars,” says Norman. “And of course that can give you a buzz when you’re playing, but if you aren’t a die-hard pianist you don’t really want that in your home, with the sound overpowering the room. You want something that’s beautiful to listen to. I don’t know any other manufacturer with this approach.”

The Sonos speakers we have dotted around the house have a function that ‘tunes’ them to the space, and yet I’ve never before considered that different environments might warrant different piano constructions. Marsden’s article shone a light on a world I didn’t know existed.

General Studies was apparently discontinued as an exam subject in 2020, so sadly no more will teenagers be stumped by questions about piano mechanisms… and nor, like me, will they have to bluff their way through essays on the Elgin marbles, Dadaism or the International Monetary Fund. It seems a shame, really: when I try to recall sitting my A-Levels, it’s the General Studies papers that come most prominently to mind, precisely because they were so unpredictable. But I suppose times change.

This post was filed under: Art, Music, , .

A crushing realisation

Apple recently released an advert for a new iPad, and it seems it’s like a Rorschach test for our times.

The first I heard of this advert was when I saw this article in the FT, reporting that Apple had apologised for it. And so I sought out the advert. The message I got from it? Apple has managed to fit a load of different tools and functions into an extremely thin device. I wasn’t offended by it, but thought I could see why others would be: wanton destruction of perfectly good instruments, tools etc. In a world of limited resources, and from a company that preaches about sustainability, it’s not a good look, even if it’s all just visual effects.

But it turns out that I was wrong. The controversy was related to a different metaphorical interpretation of the advert. As Tedium explained:

Apple’s infamous “Crush” ad deeply misunderstands the role of the hydraulic press in meme culture.

I’m completely ignorant of the role of hydraulic press in meme culture. It turns out that there’s a whole industry around videos showing hydraulic presses crushing things. I did not know this existed. I’ve heard of Will It Blend—but I’m clearly behind the times when it comes to online video culture.

The ad doesn’t connect because the message it’s trying to promote is essentially completely at odds with our understanding of the hydraulic press, which we only understand as a device that breaks things in the most brutal way possible. There’s no intelligence at all, artficial or otherwise. It just crushes things.

Clearly, many people had viscerally negative reactions. TechCrunch called the advert ‘disgusting’. Where I saw a neat metaphor for packing functions into a device, others saw an enforced digital transformation:

Does your child like music? They don’t need a harp; throw it in the dump. An iPad is good enough. Do they like to paint? Here, Apple Pencil, just as good as pens, watercolors, oils! Books? Don’t make us laugh! Destroy them. Paper is worthless. Use another screen. In fact, why not read in Apple Vision Pro, with even faker paper?

Our social context can completely change the way we interpret the same piece of footage… and perhaps I’m getting old.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , , .

Five percent

In an article published on the Financial Times website yesterday, with the fantastic headline ‘Sex and dogs and heads will roll’, Simon Kuper observes that:

One in 20 MPs elected in 2019 had left parliament, been suspended or had the party whip removed after misconduct allegations by December 2023.

It’s a jaw-dropping statistic which gives context to Kuper’s discussion of how scandals have changed over the years. Thanks to the unprecedented pace of social change, things which were resigning matters in the 1990s are not today—and vice versa. It’s astonishing to remember how recently homosexual relationships were considered scandalous, while overt racism was not.

This post was filed under: Politics, , .

Pinging news

I often hear people complaining about notifications from the BBC News app and whether they really represent ‘breaking news’. I don’t use the BBC News app, just the website, and most of the notifications on my phone are turned off, so I don’t spend much time thinking about this. But perhaps I should.

On Tuesday, the FT’s Stephen Bush wrote about the impact of these push notifications on people’s awareness of policies and how this may become more salient in the forthcoming general election. I was surprised to learn that the decisions on which stories get push notifications are ‘made by comparatively low-ranking journalists, certainly compared with the six and the 10 o’clock news.’

But then, I’ve frequently been surprised by the BBC’s willingness to downplay or delegate its most crucial role. The editorial decisions taken by BBC News about what matters in the world—what it puts at the top of its news bulletins, what gets the big slot on the website homepage, what it sends notifications about—are among the most significant decisions anyone in the organisation makes. Yet, too often, the decision is ceded to others: parroting the front pages of openly biased newspapers or perverting the news agenda to promote its own programmes are two common sins. It’s rare to log on to the BBC News website on a Sunday morning and for the ‘top story’ not to be that their political discussion programme is on the air: that’s not news.

This is also reflected in much of the marketing BBC News undertakes: the focus is regularly on ‘news that matters to you‘. But it ought to be the exact opposite of that: the BBC ought to be the source of the news that matters to all of us. The organisation should cherish and embrace its unique position in directing the national conversation. It should talk to us about it.

In the third episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy gives an on-air speech which includes these words:

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.

We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.

We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving the stories you asked for, just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity.

You may ask: who are we to make these decisions?

We are Mackenzie McHale and myself. Ms McHale is our Executive Producer. She marshalls the resources of over 100 reporters, producers, analysts, and technicians, and her credentials are readily available. I’m Newsnight’s managing editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this programme.

Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.

I’d love to see that kind of confidence and pluck from BBC News.

This post was filed under: Media, , , , , .

Calmness is key

Jonathan Moules recently wrote in the FT about the British Library’s ongoing response to a significant cyber attack. The piece focused on the role of the Chief Executive Officer, Roly Keating.

I have no inside knowledge about what happened at the British Library. It is perfectly plausible that the Library’s public face on the events might not truly reflect the experience of the staff working for the organisation. In addition, the piece is light on accountability for the (assumed) security lapses which led to the attack in the first place. Nevertheless, as a profile of a senior leader responding to an incident, a few things stood out to me.

Firstly, I admired Keating’s calmness. Moules explicitly describes him as ‘calm’ and ‘softly-spoken’, but it was Keating’s declaration that ‘I’m a believer in eight hours’ sleep’ that stood out to me.

When big things happen, it is second nature to panic and rush headlong into responding. The more one panics, the more urgent tasks appear to become. Teams must work ever-increasing hours at an ever-increasing pace until they inevitably burn out. This is a pattern I’ve seen more times in my career than I’d care to count.

The secret to things going well is for the person leading the response to remain calm. This takes considerable training and enormous effort in the moment. It usually requires disappointing people who are panicking: it might mean declining requests for hourly updates from people with every right to ask for them. It often means slowing the response down, acting on the insight that doing the right thing at a medium pace is considerably better than doing the wrong thing quickly. Most of all, it means projecting calmness and control.

Keating says, ‘This was a situation we had thought about, we had rehearsed.’

You can almost hear those words as the opening to the initial ’emergency meeting’ that Keating chaired. It’s easy to understand how they would imbue a sense of calm among those attending. It’s reassurance that, while this situation is unprecedented, it isn’t unexpected. It’s just time to follow the plan.

And that’s the second thing that stood out to me: they had a plan, and more importantly, the person leading the response knew they had a plan, had confidence in it, and followed it. This shouldn’t be surprising, yet it is frighteningly common to find people trying to lead incidents who are either unaware of the plan or disregard it.

Of course, having rehearsed the plan is a great help in enabling a sense of calm, so this is self-reinforcing. Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear of senior leaders who fail to prioritise preparation for unlikely contingencies, thereby shooting themselves in the foot.

The final thing—and it’s hard to know how much of this is down to Moules’s writing—is the clarity of thought in the response. Keating uses plain English in describing ‘an emergency meeting with library executives and the security team’, not some opaque jargon like ‘establishing an incident response cell.’ Moules talks about ‘articulating choices’, not ‘developing an options appraisal’.

It was an article that gave me a little bit of hope.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , , , .

Reading and leading

In the Financial Times earlier this week, Professor Margaret Heffernan made a startling claim:

I have yet to meet a chief executive who reads regularly.

She means, essentially, reading for pleasure—not reading reports and so forth as part of their role.

Many skip newspapers, and magazines are a stretch. They don’t have time, they say. It’s inefficient; they can get the information they need from those around them.

As well as citing lots of evidence around the benefits of reading, Heffernan observes that reading broadly provides perspective.

Fiction invites you to loiter unseen in the lives of others. We are living through a golden age of translation too, so you can go anywhere in time or place.

The idea that modern complexity is new is swiftly put to rest by the rich brew of voices, perspectives and disciplines that see human history through a spinning kaleidoscope.

Heffernan’s article made me reflect on several things.

Firstly, I disagree a little with her evangelism. I derive considerable benefit from reading, but a large part of that is because I enjoy it. Reading isn’t for everyone. There are other ways of seeking diverse voices and transporting our minds elsewhere.

That said, reading is an enjoyable and effective way to reach those goals. Many people who don’t think they enjoy reading just haven’t yet found their groove, often because they pick up the books they feel they ‘ought to’ read rather than ones they ‘want to’ read. The specifics of what people read are less important than the benefits that come from being swept up and transported to an entirely different view of the world.

Secondly, I’m surprised that so few chief executives read. There’s a surprising overlap between literature and medicine, and it’s common to hear casual book recommendations from senior people in their fields. I’m surprised that this doesn’t extend to the world of business.

Expertise in both medicine and business requires good pattern recognition. Books allow us to live through many more experiences than could be packed into a lifetime and to distil the patterns and lessons from them. I’m surprised to hear that this isn’t recognised in business.

Thirdly, my surprise is tempered by the reflection that the revelation feels true.

In one of the places I’ve worked, a corporate line seemed to catch on about it being a ‘huge organisation’. This wasn’t true: it was smaller than most in its field. I challenged this with executives so often that I ended up with a text file saved on my desktop full of numerically accurate comparisons I could quote whenever necessary.

I’ve worked for organisations whose senior leaders claimed them to be ‘world-beating’, and I’ve wondered which world they lived in.

Wendy and I have come to admire the journalist Sophy Ridge for her pluck, often remarking to political and business interviewees, ‘Come on, you don’t honestly believe that, do you?’

On reflection, all these are about the same thing: a lack of broad perspective. If all executives ever engage in is their tiny sliver of the world, then of course they will believe the unbelievable and of course they will misunderstand their organisation’s place in the world.

Reflecting on what I’ve seen about the lack of perspective many executives possess, I should have intuited that few of them read. Perhaps we ought to hope that things might change.

This post was filed under: Things I've learned, , .

One man’s trash

It’s a few weeks old, but this article about the luxury carrier bag caught my eye. It’s by Helen Barrett of the Financial Times.

In particular, this paragraph widened my eyes:

A curious parallel market has emerged in used luxury product packaging on sites such as eBay, where large paper Céline carriers are listed for about £25 each. According to recent research by the credit broker Money, empty Louis Vuitton boxes sell for an average price of £74. You could argue such a market is absurd, but in satisfying demand, it is entirely rational.

I had no idea that this market existed. I recently donated an old radio to a charity shop in a spare yellow box from a certain Italian perfumer, for no better reason than to keep the power adapter and the radio together. A quick search on eBay reveals that the going rate for the box is a multiple of that for the radio. I have posted back library books in boxes worth more than the price of the postage and the books combined.

The value of boxes was news to me, but it wasn’t shocking. It’s not unusual for me to see a second-hand shop or a market stall and to comment to Wendy that I would have binned everything they were selling if it were in my house. I’m bad at recognising the intrinsic value of stuff I think of as rubbish.

I’m the opposite of a hoarder: I like to get rid of stuff. If you like, call me William Morris (‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’) or Marie Kondo (I fold my socks but, regrettably, I don’t talk to my backpack). Wendy has, shall we say, different preferences. Hopefully, our approach is happily balanced overall.

I’ve made an effort over the past year to offer more stuff to charity shops rather than sticking it straight in the recycling, partly—if I’m frank—because of the tax-based financial incentive. But I’m sure there’s a lot, like the boxes, where I don’t recognise the value and could try to do better.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Sarah de Lagarde fell on to the Tube tracks. Nobody helped. Why?

Sometimes, a newspaper story just takes my breath away, and a great example was published online yesterday: The Financial Times story about Sarah de Lagarde’s horrific accident on the Tube last year. This is partly because it’s a story that I’d completely missed previously, and because the story itself is so alarming, but it’s also attributable to Madison Marriage’s brilliant writing.

I would have guessed that people falling between a train and a platform was an exceptionally rare event: it’s the stuff of nightmares. To find out that it happens on the Underground every other day feels alarming, even considering the huge number of journeys.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , , , , .

I like Sunak’s confidence

Writing for the Financial Times yesterday, George Parker and Lucy Fisher said:

Next year, Sunak will ask the public at a general election to trust the Tories with another five years in power. Even many in his own party believe he is doomed to fail, that he will be dragged under by the legacy of 13 years of Conservative rule: public sector austerity, Brexit, the chaos and lies of Boris Johnson, the Covid-19 lockdown parties and the economic meltdown of Truss’s brief tenure.

Nonetheless, Sunak remains bullish about his chances of defying the sceptics, with the economy faring better and inflation coming under control. A revamped Number 10 operation is determined to deliver a fifth consecutive Tory election victory. “He really believes he can do it,” says one Downing Street insider.

I think—and hope—Sunak is wrong. I don’t think the Government he leads represents the best group of people to run the country. But Sunak’s confidence gives me optimism.

I worry that Sunak’s best chance of retaining power is a snap, single-issue election in the next handful of months, the issue being the European Convention on Human Rights. A pretext can be manufactured easily, and may even be handed on a plate by a Supreme Court decision that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda contravenes the Convention. The fact that withdrawal would be controversial provides a strong pretext for “putting it to the people” at a general election. It’s not hard to imagine the right-wing press campaigning fervently in support: “you might not like everything about the Tories, but this is our one opportunity to get this done.” It’s also not hard to imagine that message cutting through.

The logic of enacting this plan this autumn is also straightforward: Sunak can argue that he is “making progress” on his “priorities” and it bounces Labour onto the turf on which they are currently least comfortable, before they’ve worked out their election position. With the press behind them, the Conservatives can define the terms of the debate and largely keep the election as a single-issue vote.

The most dangerous thing for a party heading to an election is ennui introduced by low expectations. The clear narrative based on polling is that Labour is on course to win the next election. The best way to suspend those expectations is by doing something unexpected: calling an early election and redefining the terms of that election to something where the majority view is less clear-cut. Suddenly, the narrative becomes that “it’s all to play for”—inflating the perception of the popularity of the Conservative vote.

This would be a horrible thing to happen. It would spark a distressingly toxic debate and—by definition—give voice to some of our most inhumane tendencies. For what it’s worth, I also don’t think it would work: I don’t think moderate Conservatives would fall into line, I don’t think this sort of campaign would energise large sections of their base, and I think Labour would find ways to cut through with strong ‘change’ messages. This ‘nuclear option’ might be Sunak’s best shot, but I still think it’s a long shot.

If Sunak “really believes” he can win conventionally, then this bet—not to mention the damage it could do to Sunak’s reputation and future earning potential—is not worth the risk. And if Sunak’s confidence avoids us taking a disastrous path, then it’s hard not to like it.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

Email mountains are awful; some of the alternatives are worse

Pilita Clark’s column in the FT this week was about being overwhelmed by email.

We have reached the point where the benefits of communication are being outweighed by a dispiriting loss of production.

This was confirmed by a Microsoft report last month that found workers around the world are struggling to keep up with a “crush of data, information and always-on communications”.

The research showed people are spending 57 per cent of their workday on email, meetings and other communication but just 43 per cent on productive creation.

I worry that the solution to this view of the problem actually makes things worse. In my own area of work, there is a constant push—for example—to replace written reports with online ‘dashboards.’ This would, no doubt, shift the classification of the work from being ‘communication’ to something ‘productive’, even though the actual task that is being accomplished is the same thing—just often less efficiently, because dashboards often lack clear commentary and so require lots of people to consider data separately to reach the same conclusion. The communication becomes less efficient, but feels more ‘productive’.

I think the “crush of data” is the bigger problem than the deluge of emails. We’ve reached a strange point where people have concluded that data is transparency, whereas it is often actually obfuscation. I can, in no time at all, produce statistics on the number of notified cases of certain infectious diseases. But this explains very little: declining cases might be a ‘bad thing’ if they are likely to reflect poor access to healthcare or a problem with testing. Increasing cases might be a ‘good thing’ if they reflect work done to target high-risk populations. A dashboard is often much less helpful than an explanatory paragraph, even if one of those things looks ‘productive’ and the other looks like ‘communication’.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Technology, , .

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