JRF, week 5

Ella Fitzsimmons
8 min readNov 14, 2020


Didn’t know about Parkinson’s Law, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, but I know it in my bones. Thanks to Russell for introducing me to the author of the bikeshedding theory, C. Northcote Parkinson which led to this vital discovery. Solid Wikipedia page, too

Looking for old editions of the Straits Times to see other things by Parkinson reminded me of discovering, a couple of years ago, that my great-grandfather had been the editor of the “Bangkok Sport and Gossip” magazine in the 1930s, which sounds like a great gig. Only controversial because his family, wife and two children thought he’d died about 30 years earlier. As you would, I guess, if someone left you in small-town Japan and was never heard of again. (Seriously, it’s a long story.) A good writer, though.

Anyway, my father’s family are an opinionated bunch of people. It was Armistice Day this week, and I know my views about militarism are hurtful to a lot of the British and American people I love and care about. So I’m not going to pick a fight about it here. But the celebrations on November 11th made me think of the gravestone some of my relatives put up after their (pacifist: it’s “Conway” as in “Conway Hall”) son died in the First World War.

Imagine the anger, grief and pacifist, political conviction of the people who commissioned this stone.

Decided to dig around and see if I could find anything he’d written on the internet (outside a paywall or university collection) and there was! Printed in a book by Laurence Housman, who founded one of my favourite bookstores in London.

The excerpts floating around on the internet are, as is often the case, pretty misleading. They focus on the bits where he writes about the adrenaline rushes of battle, and the seduction of the Gaelige war cries of his troops. But those excerpts are chosen by people whose justifications for remembering the war dead feel very different to mine, and certainly different to both Housman’s and Young’s.

It’s a great letter — funny, angry, and caring. From a bright, 25 year old pacifist man, writing to his aunt Maggie from a nightmarish place he enlisted in for slightly confused and confusing political reasons:

“In fact, kindness and compassion for the wounded, our own and the enemy’s, is about the only decent thing I’ve seen in war. It is not at all uncommon to see a British and German soldier side by side in the same shell-hole nursing each other as best they can and placidly smoking cigarettes.”

Indeed. They had more in common with each other than with the people that sent them off to war. Unsurprisingly, there’s several parts cut out of the letter, though whether by the censors or Housman, I couldn’t possibly say.

Though I have my suspicions.

Practical stuff

I did a bunch of things this week that were not related to thinking about war, conflict, the stories we tell about them and how the internet hasn’t helped with that in the way a lot of us had hoped. ← cheerful stuff there, Ella. Draw ’em in.

I presented a deck I’d put together with Laure based on some user research she’d done about how agile and matrixed ways of working are landing within JRF.

She’d done a great job, and it felt weird presenting someone else’s research at a leadership team meeting. I need to not do that again: if someone’s done the work, they should be getting feedback about it directly. Plus, we’ve all had *those* bosses and I don’t want to be one of them. When I’ve done it in the past, it’s been work I’d been closely involved in, and this was pretty self-directed.

It was cool to show how much insight you can get from talking to 5 people though.

Ye Olde Nielsen Chart, first of its name, patron saint of tightly scoped UX projects everywhere

That old Nielsen chart about the diminishing returns of testing with more than 7 or so people is occasionally useful. But it doesn’t necessarily land with people who do other kinds of research for a living. Showing a situation like this, where that approach works really well, felt good.

We’ve also been looking at analytics stats that Craig put together about things like opening rates on mailing lists and traffic to the website. Felt really tangible and positive too.

Here’s the thing: I’m not here for increasing engagement figures for the sake of it. One of the many things I learned from Russell was that engagement metrics don’t matter if you’re reaching the right people (or groups of people) in the right way. Tbh, he may not have actually said that, it was more of a vibe.

I just put this in because I love her. You go, Katie Porter!

I imagine engagement metrics matter more if you’re trying to either get funding by showing BIG NUMBERS on the internet, or where you’re looking for impulse buyers. But neither of those are problems I’m trying to solve right now.

Spoke to Daniel and Geoff about the web discovery project and a blog post about it that Daniel’s finishing off, different parts of the JRF site, how the housing trust currently uses technology and what to do next, so it feels like I’m starting to get my teeth into the different stacks and dependencies. More to think about and sketch there, though. Holly ran a couple of really good retros about the daily standups we started doing a few weeks ago. And Mel and I had a good chat about project management and transparency things.

Liked Matt’s post about the tactics of transformation projects, and am trying to get a couple of smaller projects off the ground in the next few weeks. Watch this space, etc.

Fun with Democracy Club

Did a day’s freelance work with Sym, Will and Peter about Democracy Club’s strategy. Excellent times. And not only because they pointed me to UKIP mayoral candidate Gammons4London’s astonishing personal website.

There’s a couple of different ways you can do this work, but I usually start it with a workshop that looks a bit like this 👇.

Aren’t we in luck? Escaping photos of people pointing at post-its, only to have people like me screengrabbing photos of fake ones. Baudrillard would have a field day.

I’d only ever done this particular workshop in-person before, but figured I’d give it a try online. Turns out that running it remotely meant that 3 topics in the morning was too one topic too many.

I think they’re good categories though. The overlap means that you have a lot of scope for discussion, and can actually move on. I moderated it pretty loosely, so we ran over time. But it felt constructive and fun. Will split it up over two sessions next time I do it.

One of the things I love doing is explaining why tech infrastructure projects matter and why they should exist and be funded. It’s hard to do that without being really technical.

And there’s not much point in being *just* technical: the people who understand that are either already involved, or are doing their own thing. Or they don’t have budget. But how do you explain “We clean data, aggregate it and maintain APIs” to a non-technical audience, who might not realise things like “that data comes from PDFs” or “software needs to be maintained and it’s not done just because it’s live”?

It’s a fun challenge.

Vaguely random links and things that I enjoyed

Ade sent me this excellent podcast about the strange afterlife of the Enron emails. Great listen, and reminds me of the corporality of data. Are the Enron emails the HeLa cells of English language machine learning?

This presentation was a particular kind of joy, about reconsidering type revivals, from Robin at Tiny Type co.

Trust any advice and historical debate from someone who intersperses tasteful slides with this magnificent scene of chic competence

Extra points for including a very cute small dog, having a go at hero narratives in type foundries and for reminding me that I’m not a fool to use that shade of muted-millenialish-pink as a background colour for some of my slides. (It looks great here and when I look at my slides at home, but it photographs in this weird blue-ish shade from a lot of large screens.)

It looks good, right? You’d never know it photographs badly. But with webinars, you don’t need to care about that.

About changing people’s minds, Storythings shared this, which says that numbers aren’t enough, but also people want to be able to find out more if they’re going to actually change their minds (which chimes with my experience too.) I was listening to an interview with a couple of the Guerilla Girls, who I love and adore, and they were talking about their revolutionary and playful use of numbers. Nice.

Play all the classics, Ella

Less smart about the way that the internet has changed marketing and advertising this was far too long and rambly (relatable) but it speaks to a lot of the concerns I have about the ongoing importance given to “authenticity” in marketing. TL;DR it doesn’t work and it’s not real.

There’s some sort of allusive, sideways relationship between that and the criticisms about the disjunct between about Apple’s public support of privacy while allowing for logging and storing user activity on the new MacOS.

I’m not going to pick at it because I want to have lunch, but this isn’t just an engineering problem. It’s also a design one and a marketing one. The most recent iOS updates are really great at explaining privacy and permissions, and Apple went all in on privacy in their ad campaigns last year. If you’re going to do that, you need to be cleaner than clean.

(Another thing I like about that post from sneak.berlin is that he has a mid-flow update being like 🔥HOLD FIRE I MAY HAVE GOTTEN THIS WRONG 🔥. I shouldn’t love that level of self-indulgent drama, but I do.)

The only appropriate greeting for mass CC:d emails

On the topic of authenticity or not, David Thomson had a great article about Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach) in the LRB. It’s a review of two biographies about the troubled but self-deprecating historic hotness of Cary Grant and it’s a delight, with unexpected depths. This line, confidently slipped into the last paragraph or so of a 3 page review, is just a beast:

It’s time to be wary of role models: they say more about advertising than they reveal of human nature.

I’ll be stealing that in future.

On the topic of cinematic arts and authenticity, this trailer for a film called “Twist” was filmed around where I live. It looks AWFUL. They shoot a lot of film and TV around here, presumably because there’s a lot of street art.

But just as the street art giveth, it also taketh away.

When they were filming Twist, they shut down the whole street for a week or so. Annoying. I was walking home one night during the multi-day shoot and walked past one of the street art guys who paints here. He was spraying “EPSTEIN WAS MURDERED!!!!” in huge, white letters on one of the walls. It was definitely going to be in shot for most of the next day of filming. “Nice!”, I said. “Let them deal with *those* continuity errors, the c****s,” he said.