Winter in Ault

Winter in Ault

Mount Storm King

Mount Storm King

Timber

Timber

Gasworks Views

Seattle From Gas Works Park

Space Needle From Gas Works Park

Fall From Gas Works Park

Floater

Floater

Sunset from the Bremerton Ferry Terminal

Sunset From the Bremerton Ferry Terminal

Sunrise from the Boat

Sunrise From the Boat

Sunset from Belltown

Sunset From Belltown

On Lower Standards

Jeremy Corby 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.