Hardly had time to draw breath since the new year, so I was particularly struck by…
Normal service will be resumed…sometime.
Howard Jacobson is a precise, even occasionally borderline pompous, writer, so I have no doubt his copy was in good shape when he submitted it.
Doubtless also, the apostrophe in the last sentence was added by a helpful work-experience intern. Jacobson is still appearing, so one presumes he survived the apoplectic rage which – again doubtless – accompanied his encounter with the ‘help’ in print…
Last week’s ponderings on algorithms brought to mind two further illustrations of the limitations of metrics as a guide to action.
The first was exemplified by the title phrase, much in use when I was doing a lot of work on TQM, Total Quality Management, back in the ’80s. This was at the tail end of an inglorious British industrial era, when this country still made most things, mostly badly. TQM – or at least the version of it I was evangelising on behalf of PA Consulting Group – was heavy on SPC, or Statistical Process Control. Essentially, measuring variance, en route to its elimination. Improvement thru’ consistency. Which seemed fine as far as it went. But was there not a danger, I asked my client, that seeing it as the be all and end all risked distorting our take on what mattered? Fine as it was for helping build steam irons whose handles didn’t go wobbly, and reducing delivery delays, what about tasks where the things that mattered didn’t lend themselves to measurement? “How,” I asked, “do you go about measuring the incorruptibility of a policeman, the patience of a teacher, the compassion of a nurse?”
The second came in a quote from the ex military man speaking in the recent series on the Vietnam war about the invention of that conflict’s defining metric: the body count. In a traditional war, you keep count by tracking the front line: territory gained, territory lost. But in Vietnam there *was* no front line. Territory was all but irrelevant. So how do you know whether you’re winning or losing; whether things are getting better or worse? Well, you need to find something you can track – hence the body count. More enemy dead; you’re doing well. As the ex-officer put it: “If you can’t count what really matters, it’s a short step to deciding that what you can count is what matters.”
None of this, of course, calls measuring, tracking and improving into question. I suppose it merely cautions against allowing ourselves to be blindfolded by one way of looking at things, particularly if it’s a way we find congenial – perhaps, often, because it’s a way that plays to our strengths.
Dictating into my phone the other day, replying to a Telegram request from my daughter, I watched the words unroll on screen: “I don’t think the we remotes ever came back after Nik took them away the other day.” By the time I’d got to ‘Nik’, the screen had begun wobbling slightly; by the time I’d reached ‘day’, the word ‘we’ had been replaced by ‘Wii’. Awesome!
By chance, later that day I was catching up on the Weekend Guardian, as is my wont, and came across this letter:
The pros of ever more sophisticated software are considerable, omnipresent, and more compelling every day. But I’m sure it’s not just my generation that’s becoming increasingly uneasy about its immense and irreversible power, given the implications of some of its cons for the ways we experience the world, the ways we speak about the world, the ways we perceive the world – and our place in it.
Last week’s flurry of smirking delight over Rex Tillerson’s refusal to disown ‘fucking moron’ set me musing once again on the alchemy of the soundbite.
Those two words will hang around Trump’s neck for the remainder of his presidency. Supporters, detractors, players and commentators, no-one will ever forget them, or see the President without them muttering in the background. It reminded me of the dawn of the Trump candidacy. At first, in those long ago halcyon days, the whole idea was an absurdity. Trump was blowing off wind, as was his wont, but as to his becoming President – what, The President? Of America? Seriously?
And then I heard the words ‘Make America Great Again’, and I thought ‘uh oh’.
So, four words made him Mr President; now two hobble him forever as President dumbo.
Never underestimate the power of words.
Government communications have improved immeasurably in my lifetime.
When I was young, pretty much everything originating from an official body had to be translated from a near-impenetrable Pathé News polysyllabic porridge. Somewhere along the line, someone grasped the novel notion that communications should actually, well, communicate, and with the help of the likes of the Plain English campaign, great progress has been made in making things accessible to people who don’t read a great deal. Which, let’s face it, is a lot of people.
So I was a bit surprised recently to come across (http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51):
Two paras down you come to an explanation of Kcals and KJs which, with a bit of unpicking, lets you cross-refer back to the opening para and get to the answer you actually wanted when you arrived. In common parlance:
Why couldn’t they simply state that at the top, then move on to the caveats?