On Lower Standards

Jeremy Corbyn on the new Brexit Deal :

“These proposals risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations. This sell out deal won’t bring the country together and should be rejected. The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.”

I'm no fan of the prime minister, and no particular enthusiast for the agreement with the EU he's negotiated (though it could certainly be worse), but Corbyn's argument here is the worst kind of snobbery. As the argument goes, the EU has been a vanguard of high standards in all kinds of areas, and we can't remove ourselves from EU regulations because future UK governments might choose to lower those standards.

Only if future UK voters elect a government on that basis, Jeremy. This argument suggests UK voters can't be trusted with such choices, because some of them might be conservatives, so such important issues must be safeguarded by the EU. There may well be good reasons to reject the new deal for leaving the European Union, but fear of UK voters can't be one of them.

On Boris

Crazy hair. Talks endless nonsense, most of it verifiably false. Alleged by many to have achieved his political objectives only by Russian interference. 

Did the UK just elect a "British Trump"? 

This has been suggested to me by enough people today that I thought I should write about it. The idea was not helped at all by Mr 45 himself drawing the same comparison. It's not quite true, but there are some interesting parallels.

Alexander Boris Dpfeffel Johnson (was there ever a full name more fun to pronounce?) is certainly not Prime Minister material. A journalist by trade, fired from multiple newspapers for printing things which weren't true, he entered politics after promising his boss at a UK magazine that he wouldn't do so. He will not confirm the number of children he has, or by how many hapless mothers (best guesses run at 7 and 4 respectively). So how does such a man come to lead the 5th largest world economy?

Two important things have died, which I think can help explain this.

Patriotism

Boris, like The Donald, puts on a patriotic show. Trump lacks the intellectual capacity to do anything other than hug a flag and wear a red baseball hat, but Boris can recite Kipling and speak with gusto about Perfidious Albion, which endear him to a crowd who long to belong. Many in the U.S. and the U.K. scorn patriotism because they view their own country's history as so tainted as to overcome any national pride. But millions of people don't feel this way, and instead see their country as the largest possible rallying point. If some say with a straight face that "what we have in common is our diversity," everyone else can see through this to look for a common identity, and find it in their homeland.

Trump does this to position the whole world as America's enemy, challenging other nations to a fight. Boris' patriotism, by contrast, views Britain's interest as best furthered by getting along with as many other countries as possible. What he doesn't accept is the tendency of many to sing "imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too." Lennon wrote many great songs, but the naivety of Imagine has been evidenced by every syllable of recorded time both before and after he wrote it.

Truth

If the death of Patriotism gives Johnson and Trump a launch pad, the death of Truth gives them a rocket. 

Listing Trump's fallacies would use up the rest of the internet, and I'm already at 75% of my data for the month. Johnson, though, is interesting. Last week, at the final "debate" between Boris and Jeremy, the man sadly tasked with playing his opponent in The Hunt Fore Gone Conclusion, Boris produced a fish. He then explained that as a result of EU legislation, fishermen now had to include expensive ice pillows when shipping their fish, the cost of which nearly drove them out of business. 

Except this isn't true. The fish packing rules are imposed by the British. It also doesn't stand up to any logic (who is going to argue in favor of putting rotting fish in the mail, except when sending in payment for parking tickets?). But the crowd laughed and laughed, and applauded Boris' patriotism for wanting to stick it to those continental European busybodies. Alternative facts abound.

So?

Is there a way out of all this? The left need to learn that people naturally love where they live, and spending all of your energy talking about the sins of the fathers will give rise to those who salute the flag, whatever their motives. The right, by contrast, need to discover veracity. You might brush off the lies of your own side for the sake of political point scoring, but the measure you use will be measured against you - there will be no room to complain about socialist economic projections in 10 years if you play fast and loose with the truth when you're in control.

But.

I maintain that “British Trump” is unfair to Boris. A philanderer and a clown he may be, but no worse than that. It’s more like the UK found and elected a British Jeff Foxworthy (no doubt with a collection of '“you might be a redcoat if…” jokes).

There's another reason I'm worried by Trump and not by Johnson. In the U.S., the executive branch sprawls across every public appointment such that the Senate spends most of its time approving the civil service. Trump has seen fit to fill the cabinet with wholly inadequate cronies, like the winner of an elementary school class election declaring his lardiest friend "the King of Lunchtime!"

But in the U.K., by the grace of the past, elected politicians hold all the great offices of state. So, for better or worse, Boris' pool of acolytes is limited to those whom voters have already endorsed. The one good thing he did while Mayor of London in the aughts was to establish under him a reasonably competent cadre of deputies, who were happy to keep the city lights on while their boss took all the credit. This same pattern seems likely to repeat itself, and so long as Team Johnson has the rudder while Alexander DePfeffle shouts nonsense from the deck, the U.K. will enter the 2020s with far less damage to its democratic institutions than the U.S. will.

If there’s a more British ending to a column than quiet, conflicted optimism, I’m not sure what it is.

On Expertise

As this post talks about work a bit, I note here that this doesn't reflect the opinions of any past or present employers. Timelines are deliberately ambiguous, in the same way a comic will say "the other day" to signify some time between forever ago and never.


"When people say their processes can't be automated, it means they have data the rest of us don't have, but need to get."

"This year we're going to work on moving from being a business that succeeds because of its people to one which succeeds because of its processes."

This thinking isn't new - those lines came from conversations a decade apart, one right as I was getting into the job market, one more recently. It's easy to understand why a business wants to ensure their operations don't rise or fall based on the knowledge of an individual. I've heard this called "The Bus Factor," (I thought by Joel Spolsky, though I can't find his reference to it) - the number of people who can be hit by a bus without threatening the success of a project. Theoretically, a high bus factor is ideal for everyone involved - the team as a whole is stable and secure, and no one has their vacations interrupted by frantic conference calls because they're the only person who knows the procedure for turning the conveyer belt on.

In practice, this isn't always so simple. Setting up a task so that anyone could step in and do it makes a person feel their work isn't valuable or appreciated. Most people have seen the lower bound of this problem:

EMPLOYEE: In some ways I'm the most crucial person here, because if I don't do my job none of our orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: I open the mail.

EMPLOYEE: I know this is true, because when I'm not here, no orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: When I go home, I take the mailbox key with me.

Similarly, the upper bound is easy to recognize - most of us don't want any medical procedure done by a project manager who took a nurse out to coffee and asked for a quick summary of the high level problems they face. Not all jobs can be figured out on the fly by a person of reasonable intelligence. But the space in between is harder to evaluate - which problems really need to be solved by people with years of expertise, and which can be reduced to just-in-time processes?

I've worked on both sides of that divide, and in general the Process Analysis Consultant is given the benefit of the doubt, with any failures excused because the experts on the ground didn't tell effectively communicate every detail they had acquired in years on the job in a thirty minute meeting. It is rare that someone concludes "maybe we should have trusted someone who knew what they were talking about."

The tendency to devalue hard-won knowledge spills over into other areas of life, too. John Finnemore's sketch about a pub argument being ruined by smartphones suggests that we used to be ignorant before we could look everything up online, but I think this perspective is backward - we used to actually know things. Our access to the sum of human knowledge is better than ever in the smart phone age, but the sum of human knowledge only increases by people synthesizing things they already know to produce new insights. The fewer things we already know, the less this synthesis happens.

I was talking to someone the other day who grew up in the neighborhood I currently live in. At least, I think they did. They referenced many places I had heard of, and told me where they lived in relation to those. Do I possess the information needed to visualize those places and how they intersect? Definitely not, I get around blindly following the maps on my phone (worse, they’re Apple Maps). Most of the time, I get where I need to go, but my understanding of the place where I live, and my interaction with the people who live here, is greatly diminished because of the connections I can't make. It takes expertise I don't yet have.

Is there a better way forward? On the business side, I wonder if the affordance we give to people with MBAs but no subject matter expertise might be just as useful working the other way. If we gave more subject matter experts the chance to learn other business skills, we might discover it's the Consulting Process Analysts whose roles can be quickly learned on the fly with no prior experience. As for recapturing the need to actually know things in the rest of our lives, it will take bitter experience for us to see the light… as we catch our partner slyly opening a dating app to make sure they have our name right, before introducing us to their parents. Sometimes it's worth really knowing things.

On "I'll Be Your Girl"

It started with the longest, happiest sigh. In early summer 2012, I returned to an empty apartment for the first time in two weeks, having had my dad and sister over for a vacation. The warm afterglow of fond memories together with the still peace of a house to myself made for an excellent mood. A friend of my sister’s had suggested The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife as good driving music during our road trip, and we’d added the title track to whosever iPod was in charge. She was right, it was an excellent open road song, and I made a note to check out more of their stuff when we came home. I’d heard of the band, as 2011’s The King is Dead was a favorite among some friends, though I hadn’t listened to it myself as that particular group of friends had a musical vocabulary completely foreign to me, and I felt it’d be easiest to remain ignorant rather than risk mispronouncing Bon Iver as “Sufjan Stevens.” 

And so, alone in my apartment with no risk of getting anything wrong, on that hot June evening in 2012, I investigated their latest release, and discovered it was a live album from the King is Dead tour. I was already excited about this, as I generally find live albums more enjoyable than their studio predecessors, and it provided a good way into their whole catalog. We All Raise Our Voices to the Air made me an instant convert to The Decemberists, and to this day that album brings to mind dozens of sunny afternoons cycling along the Poudre river, as the horrifying story of The Rake’s Song stealthily invaded my brain through a catchy guitar riff. 

2015’s “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” was the first album they’d released since I’d been a fan, and it was a vast array of styles and perspectives. Or, said more pessimistically, it was bloated and directionless. I think both perspectives are probably right in their way. But the title could just as easily be applied to their latest effort - 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl is a short, focused, often whimsical look at the sad state of things. Waiting three paragraphs to get to the record is perhaps why I haven’t written more reviews.

An acoustic guitar fades in to kick things off, as Colin Meloy pleads for something to go right in “Once in My Life.” It’s a risky ploy, singing about how difficult things are, as you release your eighth studio album and head out to play to thousands of fans every night as part of your band’s seventeenth year. But everyone has someone above them keeping them down, and in any case, problems start far further back than this record if all Decemberists’ lyrics must be explicitly autobiographical. A bright synth strides atop the guitars and drums to carry the vocal along, and the amount of melody and interest they manage to wring out of the piece is genuinely impressive, as the song has about six lines.

“Cutting Stone” is the album’s nadir. Some more synth runs initially threaten to take the song somewhere notable, but as the same two melodic ideas repeat themselves, three minutes twenty seconds seem to take a very long time. Sequencing as track two a song best suited to a Best Buy Exclusive bonus cd (even after they stopped selling cds) was an unfortunate choice, but the first notes of Severed immediately wrestle back the listener’s attention. Severed was the pre-album single, and it announced a bold new direction, all verbed out guitars and vocals held together with unexpected keyboards. It features Meloy at his most directly anti-Trump, as the President proclaims he’s “gonna leave you all severed.” As words put in the mouth of the commander-in-chief go, “don’t you get clever” surely ranks as some of the more poetic, apropos, and sad. Severed also represents the album at it’s most experimental, to allay the fears of fans of the band’s earlier work. No further pages of the Nord 2 manual are explored.

“That’s a very high note” is likely the next thought from the listener, as “Starwatcher” comes in with it’s military drums and warnings of evil ahead. It’s the first in a trio of songs direct from the center of The Decemberists’ wheelhouse. "Tripping Along" lets a lazily strummed clean guitar lull the listener into a state ripe for being jolted awake by the next track, in the same way the ticking countdown from “24” used to leave us vulnerable to the VERY LOUD FOX COMMERICALS. The energetic “Your Ghost” would be slightly more enjoyable had it not already been released as “The Infanta” several years ago, but adds an excellent instrumental break reminiscent of a harpsichord played through a 16 bit Nintendo.

So far, so… like the last one, but with keyboards. Side 1 has many of the strengths and weaknesses of “What a Terrible World…”, with it’s disorganized flashes of brilliance and tedium, with some interesting new instrumental flourishes.

Dropping the needle on side two is only recommended if you’re listening on vinyl (it will scratch your phone otherwise). The first nineteen seconds of strummed “A” chords and repetitions of the word “everything” are a big risk, all the listener’s “where are we going with this?” patience has nearly been exhausted before the tension breaks, and “Everything is Awful” kicks off an incredibly fine run of songs, stronger than anything in the first half. Whether the world needed a big nihilist singalong is a topic for another time, but this is the first of two on the album, and it’s catchy and playful. I defy anyone to keep from humming it the next time a day-ruining email hits their inbox. Chris Funk’s mad Wilco-esque guitar adds just the right amount of chaos as Meloy exhorts him to “kindly keep it down, I’m trying to get some sleep.”

"Sucker’s Prayer" is next, to check the “singalong suicide song” box. The story of a despondent man filling his pockets with rocks and wading into the river must surely pique the interest of mafia bosses who may find this easier than concrete shoes. For as much as they were trying to get away from the “piano in the verses, organ on the chorus” sound for this album, they made the right choice to play this one straight, with piano, organ, lush slide guitars, and beautiful harmonies. I could listen to that chorus for days, while my wondering where this song was when I was a lonely angsty teenager is answered by the realization that times haven’t much changed.

There haven’t been enough saxophones and childrens’ choirs yet, thought nobody. Both are put to excellent use in the next track, the musings of someone lying injured, dreaming of a message from a civil war general. The fight between irresistibly fun music and inexplicably heavy lyrics is a hallmark of Decemberists tracks, taken to the extreme by “We All Die Young.” And so we do. The band’s political leanings might tempt the listener to frame it as a protest against war or mass shootings or whatever else, but reminders of the inevitability of death are useful from any perspective. 

Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes manages to harken back to the epic feel of The Island or The Hazards of Love without feeling derivative, a feat successfully attempted. The haunting piano of the first half gives way to a jaunty acoustic guitar just in time to stop the piece dragging, and some menacing organ and electric guitar riffs close out what should be a high point of their upcoming live shows.

And finally…the title track. “I’ll Be Your Girl” recalls the perfect simplicity of “June Hymn,” adding a slightly odd genderbending lyric. It’s pleasant enough, and rather than being baffled by a line like “I could be your man but I’ll be so much more… I’ll be your girl,” I just assume I’m not the intended audience. I hope that whoever is enjoys it.

New sounds, bold perspectives, and strong songs. Whatever the flaws of “I’ll Be Your Girl,” it leaves me enjoying my favorite tracks and excited for wherever they go next, which luckily for me is “on tour, quite near here.”

On Leaving it too Late

In 2012, the leader of the Labour Party in Britain was reflecting on why they'd lost an election two years ago. In a speech about immigration policy, he made the following point:

Quite simply, we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people. We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past. Unrealistic about how things could be different. Even prejudiced. But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history. And people's concerns were genuine. Why didn't we listen more? At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalization and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed.

A mea culpa from a political leader is a rare event, and there’s no doubt Ed Miliband was right about this. But where would he go from here? He could:

  • Continue this dialogue, and commit his party to developing and proposing policies at the 2015 election which would thoughtfully address the public’s concerns; OR

  • Never mention it again, allowing public frustration to fester, and leaving people open to being taken advantage of by those offering a blunt instrument with which to vent their feelings.

He chose the second option, and the blunt instrument offered was a referendum reconsidering membership of the European Union in 2016, in which the public duly voted to leave. 

The U.S. went through virtually the same political spasm later in 2016, as neither party offered a scalpel to carefully address the concerns of those who were doing poorly. When they were instead presented with a rock to throw at the greenhouse of society, they took it - people only vote for someone likely to say  something as crass as "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now" after a long period of failing to hear anything more nuanced. That the rock has turned out to be largely inflatable was both obvious at the time and didn’t seem to matter very much to the people voting for it.

I point all of this out because of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the era of mass public shootings, the only thing Republicans in this country seem to know how to do is put their fingers in their ears (though thankfully not in a “miming a gunshot” kind of way). By doing this, they may have left it too late for a careful, considered solution. There are all kinds of contributing factors to these tragedies, and people who look to blame family breakdown or SSRIs or social media or whatever else probably do have something useful to contribute to the discussion, but by refusing to engage with the idea of legal restrictions on firearms, that discussion is never going to take place. 

Recent history (indeed all of history) shows that the public do have a tipping point. You can leave it too late. What could have been a sober, thoughtful process of how to balance liberty and safety will be replaced with calls to outlaw anything more powerful than a water pistol (and even those must be made from avocado, so they begin dissolving when you fill them and collapse disgustingly in your hand upon firing). If those on the Right keep stonewalling the gun control debate, the future is shockingly easy to predict. In 2018, and 2020, commercials and events featuring the bright and articulate students from Stoneman will capture the public attention, and a sweeping, radical change to gun ownership will be passed into law. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the person signing it spends a few seconds reflecting on the tragic waste of life this country has seen, before saying "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now."