Sunday 20 December, 2020

City of Mammon by night

As seen from a friend’s apartment in the Barbican.

Quote of the Day

“Not only will I not play it. But if Rex Harrison doesn’t do it, I won’t even go to see it.”

  • Cary Grant, responding to being offered the role of Professor Henry Higgins in the film of My Fair Lady.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J S Bach Cantata | Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir | BWV 29


If you search for ‘Christmas music’ on YouTube you rapidly lose the will to live. There’s so much kitsch and schmaltz. In the end I came back to Bach. This is lovely but a bit long (25 minutes). Still, you can always let it run while making breakfast.

Why I’m not a Slacker

Really good New Yorker essay by Cal Newport on Slack — “the Right Tool for the Wrong Way to Work”. I’m always being encouraged by the various groups with whom I work to join their Slack teams, and I always refuse, for reasons that Newport enumerates brilliantly.

By the first decade of the two-thousands, professional communication volume continued to increase, and e-mail was struggling to keep up with the world of hyper-messaging that it helped create. A tool that was designed for a time when you might expect to receive several messages a day faltered once this increased to several dozen. Information was easily lost in overflowing in-boxes, while group threads proved to be a particularly clunky format to support discussion. In 2014, Slack was publicly released, seizing on the opportunity created by these shortcomings. This messaging tool was designed to optimize the haphazard approach to work that e-mail had initiated. Slack replaced a single in-box with distinct chat channels, moved group discussions into a persistent chat format, and made all of these discussions searchable. For teams straining under e-mail’s shortcomings, Slack arrived like a digital analgesic, curing multiple pain points all at once. This palliative effect propelled Slack toward its astronomical valuation just six years later.

The problem with this trajectory is that no one stopped to ask if it made sense to optimize this style of work in the first place. Though Slack improved the areas where e-mail was lacking in an age of high message volume, it simultaneously amplified the rate at which this interaction occurs. Data gathered by the software firm RescueTime estimate that employees who use Slack check communications tools more frequently than non-users, accessing them once every five minutes on average—an absurdly high rate of interruption. Neuroscientists and psychologists teach us that our attention is fundamentally single-tasked, and switching it from one target to another is detrimental to productivity. We’re simply not wired to monitor an ongoing stream of unpredictable communication at the same time that we’re trying to also finish actual work. E-mail introduced this problem of communication-driven distraction, but Slack pushed it to a new extreme. We both love and hate Slack because this company built the right tool for the wrong way to work. If you want an historical analogy for why Slack is a menace, think of it like this: “It’s the knowledge-work equivalent of figuring out how to make the waterwheel turn faster—a useful improvement in the moment, but not nearly as important as the looming introduction of the steam engine.”

Lovely piece.

It’s a sign of a broken system when only credit card firms can force Pornhub to change

This morning’s Observer column:

Pornhub is essentially a specialised social media site: think of it as YouTube for porn. People can freely upload dodgy videos and they are hosted on the site with relatively little (if any) moderation. Not surprisingly, therefore, Pornhub suffers from the same chronic problems with user-generated content as do YouTube and Facebook. But it took Kristof’s article to put a bomb under its owner. When MindGeek began to feel the heat, its first step was to ban uploads by unverified users and to disable video downloads – to make it harder for users to save a copy of an abusive video for reuploading elsewhere. But this – of course – left millions of previously uploaded videos available, and so eventually MindGeek pulled the plug on all videos from unverified users. Poof! Terabytes of crap vanished down the digital plughole.

It would be nice, in this festive season, to think that MindGeek suddenly saw the moral light. Likewise, it would be nice to see pigs fly in close formation. Fabulously profitable corporations don’t do ethics. So what changed? Simply this: on 10 December, Mastercard and Visa announced that they had prohibited the use of their cards on Pornhub. It’s the old story, in other words: money talks…

Do read the whole piece.

Yeats’s grave

My photograph yesterday of W.B. Yeats’s grave in Drumcliff Churchyard prompted a delightful letter from Thomas Parkhill:

Nice photo of Yeats’s grave in today’s newsletter. In fact, it may not be Yeats who is buried there. Yeats died in Roquebrune in France, just along the coast from where I live now. He said that he was to be buried in Roquebrune and then, after a year, disinterred and reburied in Sligo. Unfortunately, the second world war broke out, which complicated matters. By the time the transfer to Ireland was arranged, Yeats’s burial site was only vaguely remembered, and there is considerable doubt as to whether it was Yeats, someone else, or a mixture of bones (one account I have read speaks of Yeats’s bones being “assembled” before being handed back to Ireland; this may be as true as any other story about this affair).

There are several good accounts of his last days and subsequent adventures, for example this.

Getting letters like this is one of the delights of blogging. Also confirms my conjecture that there are always readers out there who know more than me.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Paul McCartney’s creativity as a case-study for management theory. He really is a phenomenon. This is Tyler Cowen’s take on the most prolific Beatle. Link
  • The Photographer Who Set Out to Watch Herself Age. Lovely New Yorker piece on Nancy Floyd’s new book, Weathering Time, in which she collects nearly four decades of anti-perfectionist self-portraits. Link
  • Facial Hair Is Biologically Useless. So Why Do Humans Have It? Good question. Link

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