JRF, January 2021

Ella Fitzsimmons
8 min readJan 17, 2021

Welcome back to the sweet, sweet office! Starting off 2021 with new lockdowns, new riots and new reasons to google “fascism, definition of”.

Going back to work, from home, when I’d basically been in the same home for two weeks not-working is a strange thing. I could only get my head into work by remodelling my workspace — calling the activity “tidying” would be misleading — and moving a bunch of houseplants to envelop my desk.

I better not be turning into one of those “your desk is a reflection of your mind” people.

I considered not picking up the weeknotes this year. Maybe having two days a week that are entirely free from typing would be good for me? But I need something to punctuate the time, and trying to write and publish something regularly is as good a way as any. (I guess? Other suggestions appreciated.)

One of the biggest headlines in Sweden yesterday was that the king and queen got their vaccinations, even though they don’t live in or work in a care home. (Over 70s with no other health conditions aren’t supposed to start being vaccinated until February/March.) Their comms team had to apologise and argue that they have underlying health conditions that put them at extra risk. Few things have made me more homesick.

Practical things

Managing people in a pandemic is a strange thing. Reading bits about remote management, but the whole “in a pandemic” bit is really not an afterthought. JRF are being really good about it, which I admire.

But also, this pandemic can do one.

I’ve noticed I’ve started directly translating depressing, working class Swedish idioms from my great aunt (born 1911) in response to most tricky or otherwise depressing situations. They’re not the sorts of things that make it into those annoying, essentialising collections about untranslatable words from other languages. (Cute though they are — sorry to everyone who has gifted me one!! I’m a difficult person to buy presents for!) More things like “går det inte så går det inte” (if it can’t be done, it can’t be done) or “man gör så gått man kan” (one does as well as one can).

It’s an odd thing, recognising verbal influences in a different language, and despite the very mild levels of struggle in my life compared to my great aunt’s. None of the women in my grandmother’s family reached 5 feet or 45 kgs (6.4 stone, google says), very clearly because of severe childhood malnutrition. All the rest of us are 4 to 8 inches taller than that, and — well — heavier. Their father was paid in salted herring, calculated according to what local landowners (affluent, well-fed) thought was needed for a family their size. As you’d expect, it was never enough. Like everyone I’ve known who went hungry as children or because of fleeing conflict as adults, they were obsessed with food. Having it, preparing it, saving it. I’m deeply privileged, and even I can’t imagine what it must be like to live without the ancestral memory of hunger, unnecessary hunger, created by someone who isn’t.

The strat comms team was busy with the launch of the UK poverty report, which went really well, and the user centred design team did a deep dive into analytics of the website and content types. I was in many quarterly planning meetings. (And am clearing my calendar appropriately next week.) We postponed the stand up about the form the team did for JRHT last year to next week, where we’ll talk about what isn’t working as well as what did.

I’m curious about whether or not change is particularly difficult during lockdown — if the different levels of stress are making us, our colleagues and the users less able to deal with things that feel unexpected or outside our control. I suspect so.

Algorithmic anomie

I’ve been thinking about my own responses to lockdown. I find myself wanting to watch entirely predictable, low stakes things (Death in Paradise, Grace and Frankie), while also longing for serendipity. It’s really contradictory, and makes zero sense, in ways that remind me of being 14.

But also, it’s just anomie, isn’t it? Grabbed this from good ole Emile’s Wikipedia page:

But on the contrary, if some opaque environment is interposed…relations [are] rare, are not repeated enough…are too intermittent. Contact is no longer sufficient. The producer can no longer embrace the market at a glance, nor even in thought. He can no longer see its limits, since it is, so to speak limitless. Accordingly, production becomes unbridled and unregulated.

(I loved Durkheim before it was cool. Surely a man with that powerful facial hair can’t be unfashionable for long?)

Such hirsuteness

Seeing that made live through algorithmic recommendations and interactions feels deeply melancholy. I’m so bored of online recommendations, who only are based one what I’ve bought or read in the past.

And because of the need to make money from side hustles and of production costs, most blogs and podcasts about books are equally tedious. Fine, but deeply predictable.

Drawing on “book twitter” or “book instagram” reminds me of when people actually had Klout scores. Or of the dreariest parts of being much younger and having to pretend to be nice about The Matrix because so many people had seen it and loved it, even though my watching it actually had included me getting blasted on smuggled-in vodka-red bull and shouting “KEANU REEVES ISN’T JESUS” at the cinema screen.

(Have since revised this position, and have not been back to Belfast.)

Alternatives, like trying to use bookshop.org.uk, are almost as bad.

Maybe it will improve, and I want it to. So far, it’s like the worst parts of going in to a Waterstones or Foyles, with their tables heaving with books a literary marketing agency fully staffed by nice young women called Emily feel will appeal to their friends and mothers, jostling with the books their bosses, who never understood why Guy in my MFA was funny, have decided are important.

But you still have options in a biggish bookstore, with their leftover books they bought years ago that nobody ended up buying, or when someone has gone rogue with their ordering more generally.

I miss the outdoors, and I miss Bookslut. Maybe I’m just getting to Blue Monday early, or I’m getting old and nostalgic. Both are probably true. It’s less that I’d like to see technology that’s designed for joy or love (though I enjoyed Rachel’s piece about that last year), and more that I’m interested in seeing technology that’s less designed around a failing way of approaching the world. And/or a boring one.

Some of you, who are wrong, will cringe at the title of this, but K-Hole were brilliant and this is an interesting perspective about what’s next:

…it has to do with information traveling along the trade routes that are left in the rubble of the empires that fell,” she says. “There’s a lot of spirituality, a lot of decentralization. We could see really interesting collective action. I think we’re going to see internet or technological-related upgrades that are actually radical — not like the things that are actually just portals for managing your employee data or managing money.”

Who knows? It might mean that we don’t all see the same 10 people on social media every day. If they can (literally) reinvent the typewriter and sell it back to booknerds, surely the same can one day be done for software.

Either that, or I’m going to go full algorithmic anomie accelerationist and get really into TikTok

The Self is not Enough

This series of short videos is the loveliest, most thought provoking thing I’ve seen in awhile. (See? I don’t hate *everything*.) Called “The Self is Not Enough”, it’s a series of people around the world reflecting on cities, how we interact, and how our lived environments might need to be different

The lockdowns forced a new perspective on familiar interactions. In private rooms far beyond Montreal, we continue to reflect on just how, and how long, we’ve been alone. Now, as people around the world emerge from isolation, or re-enter it again for those who face another wave, there is a shared pulse of awareness and concern. Let us turn toward this tension and explore it, looking with curiosity and care at the interactions between people, their immediate surroundings, and the city — how they fit into and need one another. We have many questions, and a hypothesis: that the self is not enough.

As one of them says, “Now, the challenge to integrate single people and the elderly in social structures is even greater.” Indeed.

This is such a good case study of what goes into fixing even parts of urban planning systems:

Should be required reading for anyone trying to do housing reform. (H/T @rufflemuffin, I think?). I worked on some similar things at IF for Homes England from a different angle 2 years ago, so it’s cool to see how the policy and delivery bits of housing are changing how they work together, around the world.

Even my more chilled out friends have now downloaded Signal. I found this really satisfying, and could probably be useful for explaining the different considerations that go into privacy and security.

I wrote something about it from a different perspective, with support from Grace and a comment from Sarah, a few years back, in response to one of the many calls for government data strategy submissions:

Communicating about that stuff is hard though.

I retweeted what I thought was a clever contrast of Signals/Whatsapp’s messaging (ha!) about privacy, thinking it was a good example of how to communicate that to a mass audience. Turns out it’s fanfic:

Ah well. I guess we’re going to be getting used to misinformation on and about Signal now.

Relatedly, this was a really interesting read about content moderation and the practicalities of taking down Parler

I realised I didn’t know as much about Polish history as i’d like to, so I started listening to Notes from Poland. Enjoying it so far.


One of the things I find especially useful is that it oscillates between historical events and current ones, I guess. Including from the slightly unlikely source of Timothy Garton Ash, who I normally find…not as bad as Niall Ferguson. PIS’s “redistribution of dignity”, including cash payments, as a way of addressing post-1989 “inequality of attention and respect” is a thing for me to think about.

I read a good book about linguistics over the holidays:

The bit about Albanian and grammar ignorance is a good one.

I also just complained to Mark about this post, saying “It’s not very good, but I feel like it’s funny in a depressed way”, which shows that 20 years of therapy really is a good use of state and university funding.