JRF, weeknotes 6

Ella Fitzsimmons
10 min readNov 22, 2020


So here’s the thing: I listened to an interview with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and she said that when she was stuck with writing, she starts typing “So here’s the thing” and then the rest follows. (If you don’t know who she is: she writes really good celebrity profiles for GQ.) Maybe it’s from this one.

For what it’s worth, her novel Fleischmann is in Trouble is fun and smart, especially if you’ve met a lot of men like the main character. Which I have. The reviewer that compared it to Teju Cole’s Open City is drunk, though.

In other excellent advice, she says one of the questions profile writers need to answer is why the reader wouldn’t just go to the celebrity’ Wikipedia page. Goes for pretty much all or any writing about anything that’s even remotely public knowledge. And that there’s so much information about any celebrity out there that you need to have a really clear point of view to write something interesting.

I loved this, too:

I want the reader to know that I know what my job is. My job is to go there and to tell you what it would have been like if you were there. Anything beyond that is starfuckery, and starfuckery is the thing that I am afraid of in those stories.

Yes! Being really open about what you’re doing works for all kinds of things.

Obviously, I’ve been thinking about that in terms of what to prototype and test for a later version of the JRF website. I feel like two of the websites I currently like, from the Marshall Project and Talk Poverty do that well. But, you know, applies to all kinds of things.

Ella, what did you do in the culture wars?

I made the mistake of going on to my otherwise closed Facebook account this morning. Quelle cesspit. First row seats in the culture wars.

(No Angie, I won’t see you on Parler.)

That, and twitter, reminded me of Huw Lemmey’s excellent essay from last year, “Sn*wflakes and F*ggots”, about Fairytale of New York. And yes, it’s extremely relevant that it’s as timely in 2020 as in 2019.

I’d quote the whole thing, so I’ll just mention this work-y point, which is that you can’t pretend the culture wars don’t exist and that everything that anyone even low-key cares about can potentially get caught in it, or be used in them.

It’s that, or irrelevance.

This generation’s Cayce Pollard isn’t someone allergic to brands who works out what’s cool and real. Those people work for Yeezy/Donda Industries already, or are pissed off about having been underpaid and undercredited and have left to do a DTC project. She’ll be someone who can call a culture war inflection point before it happens and know what to respond to. (Oh God, it’s Julia HB, isn’t it??)

Not Julia HB. I nicked this from Jamie McKelvie’s website. I used to have that haircut, so it feels fair.

Getting things live, and a total digression about content moderation

Half the team was working on getting a short video and social media assets live as part of a campaign JRF is running to keep the extra £20 a week that’s been part of Universal Credit since earlier this year.

Ta-da! Was fun to go back to editing and getting something shorter, punchier and a bit more cheerful and hopeful than the rough cuts. Have said it on Twitter, but was really impressed with the care that Martyn and Ryan took with making sure that Amanda, who is in the film, was included in the whole process. It’s really important to do, and it’s easy to skip it or be rushed when you’re trying to get something live by Friday.

Holly L also designed some really nice twitter cards that use the secondary colour palette, with the primary colour palette as an accent colour

I’ve started compiling a list of all the public sector orgs that use that cyan-magenta-y colour that Futurebrand made a big feature of the London Olympics identity in 2012. Might write a blog post about it, and the cheerful, “it’s not all the bad really”-nostalgia it evokes. Or, if any of my readers want to do that for me, please do! I have a whole folder of screengrabs already.

Hannah, Jess and Craig were dealing with getting the film onto social media.

Here beginneth my digression:

Using the word “Government” seemed to be tripping the “political content moderation” algorithms for paid social.

Makes sense, but makes apolitical charities talking about the democratic process on social trickier. FWIW I’d rather that Facebook flagged more rather than less content, but the bluntness of those tools probably just mean that content moderators have an even grimmer job.

Wondering if anyone in my social media bubble has worked as a content moderator? I haven’t, but a friend of mine was staying with me while she was being paid to train a translation AI by matching voice searches with transcribed translations. Hearing the violent, horrific, racist, sexual things Swedish men were trying to translate (presumably to improve English-language porn searches), alongside voices trying to find the names for recipe ingredients or teenagers trying to get help with their homework, is one of the most brain- and soul-crushing things I’ve experienced.

The intimacy of voice recordings makes it worse. People sounding like my extended family (whose regional accents you’d rarely hear on national media), voices quivering with excitement as they anticipate watching women be hurt. Of course, content moderators *can* refuse to translate or flag — but you’ve already heard or seen it, so you might as well get paid for it. And there used to be a limit on how many things you could flag. I could stand it for five minutes.

Dug around and saw this really good letter from Foxglove Legal supporting content moderator. And they make the same point that I do about the human effects of wide ranging automated tools, which makes me feel clever.

Two things to punctuate this digression:

  1. To a lot of automated decision tools, writing and social media posts by high profile rightwing characters are indistinguishable from the criteria used to identify hate speech. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a tech problem or a social one.

2. It feels like content moderation should be part of everyone’s induction into tech companies. (Maybe it already is.) For other companies, that would probably be more like shadowing the social media manager for a week. It’s a different job to content moderation, but would probably give a better indication of what your customers think about your organisation (if anything at all) than any number of summary decks.

Anyway, the JRF videos are live, and seem to be performing well on Twitter. Will hear the Facebook numbers next week. That’s also when the Chancellor announces the next big spend review, so we’ll see if he accepts the suggestion.

Fun with design sprints

The other part of the team has been working on a short design sprint about a form that’s on the housing trust’s website. We’ll be writing more about it in a week or so, but it’s been wonderful to see Daniel, Holly, Laure and James working together on a shared, fast-moving project.

I’ve been saying variations of “let’s not call what we’re doing ‘digital transformation’ because it just gets people’s backs up and slows things down” for the last couple of weeks.

A surprising number of things can come back to bite you.

That’s not me being a shadowy puppeteer master mind (or is it?!?!). It’s because “digital transformation™” has become a shorthand for expensive consultants who don’t do much. Other than potentially reassuring the people who have hired them in that they can still be in charge despite not understanding fundamental aspects of how their business works. (#notallconsultants, obvi.)

The funniest example I’ve seen is two Big Bosses from A Former E. Fitz Employer, who vocally hated everything to do with digital and data and who had no interest in tech or design projects other than to slow things down so their own power base wasn’t threatened. Fast forward to 2020 and they’ve started a consultancy that charges £50K for their digital strategy “work”. Someone’s paying that, lads.

The problem is that, to a non-specialist who needs help, people who are good at getting things done are indistinguishable from everyone else.

So I’m just saying that we’re making things better.

There’s a bit of healthy questioning about design sprints. Here’s a thread about it, but I’ve started seeing it popping up here and there. I really welcome that challenge.

Anything people pretend is magical is at least 50% bullshit. (I think I might make my third Rule of Adulthood after 1. Nobody cares and 2. Consider the source.)

I also think parts of the critique are premature, or backlash to the idea that the best, most exciting and implementable ideas come from what’s essentially a week-long series of workshops.

They don’t.

If they did, the people who sell them would not be running workshops for a living. They would be hanging with the Stripe founders at a tiny green-juice bar in SF before their personal, Covid-tested helicopter pilot takes them to their enormous ranch in Colorado on their way to a private island off the Bahamas.

But seeing the team work on a tightly scoped problem this week has convinced me that it’s too soon to write off one-week design sprints.

Especially for teams working in-house. It focuses and refocuses the team on a set problem, and makes it easier to feel like you *could* get to a good answer. It gives you a get out of jail card for needing really senior buy-in, too, because you’re doing something that sounds real, but also non threateningly designy. Cue some of the designers in my life saying: that’s the problem! Design is powerful! Which it is. But also, if you’re being underestimated, you might as well use it to your advantage. Ask anyone who’s been told “You’re smarter than you look.” (Entirely hypothetical example, of course.)

You really do need *both* great facilitation *and* deep knowledge of the tech and context you’re working within to make the sprints worthwhile. I’ve done design sprints without people who know the tech really well, and it often means things end up a bit vapourware-y. Which creates a whole new set of problems. Luckily, we have that knowledge on the team, so we’re good :)

Unrelated other bits

Jan Morris is dead. One of those sentence-by-sentence excellent writers, a bit like Diana Athill, even when I don’t agree with all of their beliefs. If you haven’t read Conundrum, which I haven’t for a while, I remember thinking it a beautiful love story across gender lines.

Mark wrote a very good post about the launch of Replicate AI. It’s Andreas and Ben’s start up, and he’s been doing some work on it this summer.

Mark’s point about basic tooling missing from machine learning, and, more ironically, from a lot of the tech ethics and algorithmic accountability debates, is spot on.

On that note, the Sensible Code company’s work with the ONS is pretty cool. It’s good to see their new tooling lets users embed their own confidentiality settings. To read the summaries from the Online Harms debate, you would assume that companies were choosing to not do any of these things out of malice. I’m not letting them off the hook — but let’s at least use the right hooks.

Some real talk from Jane, which I agree with. Though the idea of writing more business cases even to preserve the status quo fills me with dread. You *know* that would happen. I may not be Cayce Pollard, but I am semi-psychic when it comes to these things.

Did you know that the most recent 5 year plan from the Chinese Party Plenary is a 60 bullet point list? And the last one was 36 pages? For governing an economy of 1.5 billion people. They’ve become big news stories in the People’s Daily. Yes, they’re occasionally contradictory. No, China is not a democracy, and in the interest of any future job I might hold, let me have it on record that I (still) believe in democracy. But the West has a lot to learn from, there, in terms of how the powerful speak to the less powerful (or power-less).

And seriously, if you can summarise what’s coming up FOR CHINA in less than 40 pages, no strategy or playbook in the UK or US needs to be longer than 5 to 10 pages. Ever.

I also found it amusing that a podcast I was listening to expressed surprise that Chinese students returning from overseas studies didn’t automatically believe in democratic revolution. Friends, I’ve been in and around UK universities for about 12 years, and I think first past the post is no way to run an election and the class system is no way to run a country. I’m hardly going to go back to Sweden and say “let’s make this less efficient and more polarised” or to the US and say “have you considered making your class system even more ossified”, am I? Doesn’t mean there aren’t things about the UK educational system and wider culture pthat I enjoy and love.

The new work from Zak group is slick, as expected.

They do a good newsletter, as you’d also expect.

The new Megan Thee Stallion album is great. As is Jazmine Sullivan’s new stuff — hearing her back in full voice feels like a relief.

I love your music and I’m happy you’re doing well, Jazmine

Saw her perform live in London a couple of years ago, and she shared experiences related to domestic abuse to explain why she hadn’t been performing or recording much. Hearing her like this is a wonder.

That said, my most recent visceral musical experience was loudly singing along to the Rain King from that 90s Counting Crows album. The depths of basic white lady uncoolness. Like non-Irish people born in the 1970s singing a U2 deepcut.

I had my noise cancelling headphones on and I thought Mark was out, so was belting out my interpretation (air guitar undisclosed). Turns out he was upstairs, on the phone to a recruiter, desperately waving to alert me that he was there.

That’s it. The exact middle point between manic pixie youth and eccentric old lady. The producers of the extremely historical documentary The Crown would need to find a new actor to play me.

She better be hot.