JRF, week 8

Ella Fitzsimmons
12 min readDec 6, 2020


Are you looking for a grown-up advent calendar? Amy has curated and edited (this matters, later) a list of 24 short essays about things people thought about a lot in 2020. Lovely design by Sonia, too. I had one in it the other day, about ambition and aging and Caroline Quentin.

It reminded me, as well, of what the joy of working with an editor — and if you *are* an editor yourself, it’s one of those things that don’t happen very often. It’s one of those roles that the internet and financial crashes largely caused to fade. I suspect or believe will make a comeback, although possibly in a different form. Ade sent me this essay that’s ostensibly about comedians, but which moves smoothly both into talking about creative lifespans (which is a much cleverer way of thinking about “losing your edge”, I think) as well as the role of editors in keeping that under control. (It’s a really good essay. Unsurprising, given Ade’s excellent taste.)

Because I only have so many ideas in a week, here’s part of my reply, as I was wondering what those relationships might look like as or when the power balances are different:

And I *do* wonder what editing looks like in the future — how do we show the vagaries of having another person’s brain working on a document or piece of work in ways that celebrates and acknowledges both, or all, of those perspectives? Because I think that, until that’s well-understood, it’s challenging to get people to see why they should pay for it, or suffer the indignity of someone informing their ideas. I suspect that the centralising, Internetty fascination with curation doesn’t really help — a curator picks out the work, and changes its context, but doesn’t fundamentally change it. Which an editor does. Curating can be innate, and pick things that are perfectly formed — I think editing works a bit differently.

Esteemed editor friends, I know that those should be em-dashes. (They are, in Medium, and they’re not when I type them on my phone.)

I refuse to accept that I need to learn the short commands for them on my iPhone. The fact that they don’t autocorrect suggests not enough people in the world use em-dashes accurately, and that the teams working on the iPhone keyboards don’t think punctuation is a priority.

Which is sort of fair, because most punctuation is pretty tedious and it’s magic is in its evolution. (Seriously, look at capitalisation use in mid-20th century advertising and tell me thaht changes in writing habits aren’t a good thing.) Though in terms of editorial decisions within software design, it’s pretty illustrative that “ducking” instead of “fucking” continues to rear its ugly, socially conservative head, while obviously accurate em-dashes are nowhere to be found.

Practical things

I’m planning to take next week off from meetings so I can focus on product strategy work for the JRF website for the first 6 months of next year. Rather than starting a big bang build early on in the year, I’m thinking about how to piece up the work, what bets to take on showing different parts of what JRF does and wants to do, testing what’s buildable and might be maintainable. That sort of thing. It was great to chat this through with Daniel at the end of the week, and see what things he’s been thinking about and testing while he’s been at JRF, including the discovery work the team did with Snook just before I started, as well as work done with data visualisation teams a couple of years back.

The rest of the user centred design team, plus Camille (who works in participation and in building alliances with grassroots groups) and Paul (JRF’s senior copywriter who also has an excellent blog about bird-watching and well-being) are half-way through a 2 week sprint. They’re looking at the online or self-service part of what JRF’s “framing service”.

One of the reasons I wanted to scope this really tightly was to create a sense that things can actually get done and questions can be answered. It’s one of the things about working in tech and design I find really useful. One of the things I find most frustrating and least conceptually rigorous about academic research is that any problem is either pointilistically tiny or can become enormous and endless. Which just leads to paralysis.

It reminds me either of how Medieval chroniclers of court histories used to have to start with Adam and Eve. Or those James Michener blockbuster books from the 1980s, which would being with a couple of chapters on, like the Ice Age and tectonic shifts, and then merrily skip into, I dunno, genocide and the American West by the 350th page of a 800 page tome.

In academia, you partially deal with that through citations (see: Weber, Max on the bureaucritisation of academia and Armitage and Guldi on the influence of tenure and publication demands on the contemporary Western study of history.)

But outside of academia, tt’s where the discipline and conceits of things like design thinking is useful. Obviously, these are also fictions, and applying them to *everything* has its risks and/or doesn’t work. But ignoring the problems they’re looking to solve is also a problem. There’s things going on with Swedish social democracy which I think points to both the strengths and weaknesses of doing that, and are more broadly about where applied systems thinking (and practice) are at today. The governing parties and administrations are so used to systems being both less complex than they are today and of being comfortably in charge of if, that they struggle to think about (and do) smaller, potentially impactful interventions.

So Covid-19 deaths in Swedish care home are hard to address because, I dunno, we have an aging population and American banks forced us to privatise parts of them in the early 2000s, and they’re feministically important because they’re a way for women entrepreneurs to make money, and the people who work in them are poorer than the average Swede so they have to go to work, and the atomisation and urbanisation of Sweden, combined with a dependence on families with 2 incomes, means that the nuclear family simply can’t step in to do elderly care in the way its done in countries (like the UK) where fewer women work full-time and…no small intervention is going to fix all of that.

All of which is true, but also not terribly helpful.

So I’m pleased to see that the scope is staying crisp, and that the team are gelling together and enjoying working on what’s next for an online service. Seriously, Jude (who is the designated decision maker on the sprint) said so herself, so it must be true.

Hannah’s part of the strat comms team took a day to work together and look at what’s landing and what isn’t. Obviously the results are top secret! (They’re not, really.) It makes me wonder how much the DWP lot use social listening tools to inform how they’re building Universal Credit? I remember going to their offices and being really impressed by how committed and compassionate the people working on that service were. They were also some of the first agile product teams I saw who incorporated policy professionals. And yet…[redacted to protect a semblance of apolitical credibility]. An extremely subtle hint about what people on the internet are worried about, that:

With the design team, Frank, and a designated specialist team, I’m also trying to work out how we work with the housing trust and care homes parts of JRF. Is the design team an in-house creative studio? How and when can they push back to commissions? Should the designers instead be setting those projects? How do we weigh that against the real needs of our colleagues in housing and care, who everyone wants to support? They’re good conversations to have.

Another part of my team are redesigning a form for the JRHT site, and I’m working with colleagues in the Tech team to map and test user journeys for replacing the backend systems next year.

Digital/design and tech are split up at JRF. So the CIO Geoff and I just meet every week to chat through problems and opportunities. That split is the sort of weird historical hangover we could all do with shaking — I’ve seen it at a couple of places. More in common than divides us, etc. Beyond the housing trust stuff, we’re doing a shared project early next year about relationship management at JRF. Working title:

“I really, really don’t want to do a huge CRM procurement and migration malarkey if I don’t have to, so can we get the same or similar results in a less painful way?”

Well, not really, but that’s my vibe.

I also had a double-whammy of a day running one workshop for Democracy Club and one for a group of 20-odd healthcare intrapreneurs via UP Ventures.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any work in the healthcare space. Other than my friends at Article 36 and some of the cryptography teams at Google AI I worked with last year, they work on some of the most specialist areas I’ve experienced. Trying to help them explain what they do, in ways that are accurate enough but also easy to understand, is really good for the brain. Plus, Steve and Andy who I work with at UP Ventures are great.

Democlub was also really fun. We were gathering some feedback from the trustees about a doc that I’ve been working on.

One of the challenges was about how to think about what to do next. Which is fair, and which is also one of those areas where API building/product thinking and the ways that more traditional charities/social change organisations work sit pretty uncomfortably together. The potential tension between the questions “are there data sets we could compile and maintain” and “should we start with a theory of change?” is pretty big. There’s obviously many, many shades of grey between those, and they don’t reflect the full discussion but still. I need to think about it a bit more, and needed to rest this weekend.

But! There’s a call for proposals out by Data and Society which is both characteristically clever andvery useful for thinking through some of those problems:

While governments collect data for innumerable purposes, we are particularly interested in the data infrastructure underpinning four epistemic efforts we see as operating at the crossroads of societal urgency and long-term democratic resilience: 1) Climate science; 2) Public health (e.g., pandemics, vaccines); 3) Democratic purposes (e.g., voting, census); 4) Economic modeling (e.g. labor statistics, employment data).

Also good:

The legitimacy of public-sector data infrastructures is socially constructed. It is not driven by either the quality or quantity of data, but how the data — and the institution that uses its credibility to guarantee the data — is perceived. When data are manipulated or political interests contort the appearance of data, data infrastructures are at risk. As with any type of infrastructure, data infrastructures must be maintained, both technically and — crucially — socially.


Fun things — mainly about Le Carré, computers and cats

If you only read one link from these notes, make it this one from Dr. Gary Younge. Just so good on the media landscape in the UK.

We finished watching the 1980’s tv-series Smiley’s People this week, which is really very good. I’d argue that it’s aged better than the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The portrayal of Anne is less sexist, the pacing feels a lot more contemporary, and the threat of violence underneath Smiley’s quiet gentleness is easier to access.

I enjoyed the pay-off. More pointedly personal and political than it feels in the books. Karla and Smiley are different sides of the same corrupt system, sure. But it’s Smiley who makes the emptier, sadder choice. The supposedly individualistic system wins, at least this once, by a person choosing it over the people in his life, unlike the communist Karla, who makes the opposite choice. So much for defeating your nemesis, I guess, or for the differences between two broken political systems and the unjust sacrifices they require.

Possibly related: I’m holding off reading Berlant on the cruelty of optimism, though I find her deviously funny and consistently provocative. I don’t know if she cites Le Carré in Cruel Optimism, but this felt apt.

All attachment is optimistic. But what makes it cruel is different than what makes something merely disappointing. When your pen breaks, you don’t think, “This is the end of writing.” But if a relation in which you’ve invested fantasies of your own coherence and potential breaks down, the world itself feels endangered.

The director is the same guy who did the 90s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which is amusing because he uses the same setting — an autumnal walk — for the end of a couple’s conflict here as he does for the happy resolution of conflict there. You’d imagine he’s one of those people who struggles to get words out when sober and sitting still, I guess.

On writing on and for the internet, I was amused at how wrong this article was:

Most long reports are never intended to be read, at least not by people who aren’t explicitly paid to read them. Long legal documents, like terms and conditions or technical specifications are very similar. They’re already being written to be opaque: they’re long, dull and tightly typed, with critical detail hidden in tiny footnotes and endnotes. Making them machine readable is infinitely preferable.

One of the things that struck me in Smiley’s People was a scene where they’re going through someone’s extremely long, deathbed confession and they’re trying to find mentions of Karla. They flick through pages upon pages, trying to see anything relevant.

Today, you’d do a Command + F, see if you had enough, and only read it if you needed more. Similarly, if policies and reports were machine readable, you can write scripts to be triggered if there’s something relevant to you. Some academics have been using scrapers for years. The article worrying about reports and AI readers is a bad take, basically.

Related, I was looking at this post about content markup

Found it through these weeknotes, which I enjoyed a lot

Lots of people have written about Slack and Salesforce, and I mainly have 2 things to add. The first is that I’ve long been assuming that Benioff is running for office, so any indication that he’s still doing a day job is a surprise to me. The other is that it reminded me of that deeply embarrassing letter from Slack to Microsoft Teams when they launched, and that only the affection that journalists have for Slack is keeping it from resurfacing more.

My note to self reads: “god, remember that cringe email from Slack?” Am putting it here to remind myself that even brilliant people have terrible ideas. And act on them.

Putting this in here with no further comment about the state of tech ethics.

During my epic 6 year stint as an undergraduate (it was free at the time), one of the best courses I did was in history and philosophy of science. There was a section that discussed how archaeologists of different decades would portray ancient clothing discoveries in line with contemporary beauty and fashion standards. I appreciated the debates about it here, but also: as someone who has a strong hippie clothing phase, I can confirm that red oche dye rarely creates a tasteful millennial pink

So the twitter argument still stands.

My younger sister has a Siamese cat, Agatha, who is a feline supergenius. Did you know that their markings on the face, tail and paws has to do with their body temperature?

They’re like real, live mood-rings.

Mainly set to mischief.