Weeknotes #39–40 — March

It’s much harder to jot down weeknotes that look back over a fortnight as opposed to a single week. As ever, there’s a lot that’s been going on.

At work we are moving firmly away from the budgeting process and pushing hard on making progress with our plan. We’re getting challenges and looks of disbelief from all sides in terms of what we are pushing to do over the next six months or so. I really welcome this. There are a lot of experts with much more experience than me in the things that we are trying to do. We have been trying to channel the feedback into more detailed conversations to try and surface assumptions and issues we haven’t thought about. At the moment, I am still sitting with a plan that is ‘aggressive but possible’ — no ‘showstoppers’ have revealed themselves yet — so it is going to take some skill and a lot of hard work to make it happen.

The team are working under the ‘principle of mission’ in terms of knowing what the end date is for their workstreams and having to plan how they will meet it. Some will be able to do this better than others, so there will need be room for assistance with this, but we don’t have time for a full bottom-up plan which is unlikely to reflect reality anyway. The devil is in the detail, but the detail needs to come from the people doing the work. One of the hardest things is going to be dealing with over-optimism on the part of our stream leads who may only realise when it is too late that we are out of time. I’ve seldom met someone who doesn’t do this, including myself. Breaking down the work with them locally and stepping through each plan that shows ‘who will do what by when’ will help. At a programme level I will need to continually spend time surveying the landscape and looking at where best to get involved to remove obstacles and reduce risk, and keep iterating on this until we’re done.

Last weekend I spent three hours with our incoming Chair of Governors, immersing ourselves in some of the detail of the job and agreeing a few immediate actions between us. She is going to be great in the role. It somehow doesn’t yet quite feel real that I have stepped down to being Vice-Chair, perhaps because there is still such a backlog of items to get through.

I met up with for a coffee and a chat with a prospective new governor who responded to my request at the ‘meet the teacher’ evening at the start of term. The role sells itself and it’s lovely to talk about it with someone who wants to join the team — once they have been in contact it’s rare that they decide they don’t want to participate.

At home, the biggest event for us was the People’s Vote march on Saturday. I’d spent some time talking to my two boys about it and explaining why I was planning to go. I felt strongly enough about the issue to prioritise being there. Our family discussed it all week — I tried very hard not to deliberately persuade them to my point of view and for them to make up their own minds about what to do. They were very keen, so we gathered together some materials and got up early on Saturday morning to make signs. Both of the boys came up with their own ideas for their placards, and I made my own too.

The march itself was brilliant, but hard work. It was one of those unusual days in London where people notice and talk to each other instead of being lost in their own worlds of phones, headphones and newspapers. The group of friends we went with assembled at Marble Arch just before midday and we then quickly found ourselves stuck with the heaving throng for an hour and a half or so. The boys did really well to keep patient in the crowd once the novelty of seeing so many sweary signs had worn off. As we shuffled forward and the day wore on, people started to leave our group to find food or get to whatever they had planned to do in the evening. I said goodbye to some friends at Trafalgar Square some three hours into the walk and then made my way alone past Downing Street and into Westminster. The speeches had long since finished but it felt good to have completed the route. I was so pleased to have been there and stood with so many other like-minded people. I don’t know if it will do anything to stop Brexit but I am glad that I can say I didn’t leave it to everyone else to fix.

Winter running has kicked off with the first Chiltern Cross Country League race of the 2018–19 season in Oxford. This year our youngest boy is competing for the first time in the U11 group and our eldest has moved up to the U13 group. We were very proud of them both, coming 42nd and 14th respectively. Neither of them left anything on the table and my eldest ran the whole race with an injury he picked up at the start. Next stop is Milton Keynes on 10 November.

My vinyl obsession continues unabated. Following the People’s Vote march I wandered into Soho to see what record shops I could find. Sounds of the Universe and Reckless Records are within a stone’s throw of each other and are both wonderful, filled with new and used records respectively. I particularly loved how the items in Reckless are carefully graded and that the staff actively encouraged me to look at the vinyl before I made I purchase. I managed to pick up a brand new copy of Zero 7’s Simple Things and a vintage copy of Seal’s debut album. Playing Seal was a bit of a shock as the album is substantially different to the one I grew up loving on CD — it turns out that there are actually two completely different versions of the album. We’re not talking 1960s-style ‘slightly different mix between mono and stereo’ differences. Some of the tracks are completely different. I’ll need to give it a few more plays to work out which one I like best; the version I know is so deeply ingrained in my brain it will be difficult to dislodge.

Next week: Flushing out as much of each of our programme workstreams as I can with the team and getting our architectural high-level designs completed and signed off. Some new faces in the office, and a half day midweek to attend the annual Standards Visit at school.

An email to David Gauke

Just wrote to David Gauke, my local MP, following yesterday’s march. This tool makes it easy to do it. Here’s my message to him:

Dear David Gauke MP,

I am writing to you as your constituent to ask you to support a People’s Vote on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

I am worried that the kind of deal being proposed — or exiting the EU with no deal at all — will damage not only living standards but our national interest too. Will you consider letting the public have a say over it?

My entire family, including my 11- and 9-year-old sons, spent our day in London on Saturday to ask for a People’s Vote. I have only been on one political march before, in 2003, to try to prevent the Iraq War. I feel as passionately about this issue as I did then.

I do not understand the argument that another vote is undemocratic. If we elect an MP, or a government, that turns out not to do their job well, there is another vote at the next election. What happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is a good illustration of this. Brexit is a decision of such magnitude which is unlikely to be overturned before serious, irreparable damage is done.

Your position on a People’s Vote will be the most important factor when I decide who to support at the next General Election.

Please will you do the right thing for our country and put the historic decision as to whether to proceed with any Brexit deal in the hands of your constituents and the people of this great country?

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Doran

Planning to go on the People’s Vote march on Saturday. My young boys are currently debating whether to come with me. I went on the anti-war march in London in 2003 and it didn’t stop anything, but it feels wrong not to participate and just watch this car crash happen.

Watched Rear Window (1954) with my two young boys last night. They loved it! Both were hiding their faces in their hands at the climatic scene, and questioning whether it should be a PG. Hitchcock continues to thrill after all these years. My favourite film.

Ordering pre-release stuff months in advance is great. When it turns up out of the blue, it’s like a little random present from your past self. Looking forward to getting stuck into this.

Vinyl explorations

The seed was planted over a year ago, at my brother-in-law’s house, when we sat down to listen to some records. For the first time I can remember, I was blown away by how good vinyl can sound. The seed was then watered by That Classical Podcast. Or, more accurately, this tweet from one of the hosts:

Snowpoet’s Thought You Knew is a stunning, beautiful, delicate album. Since first hearing it in June it quickly raced up my ‘most played’ chart and has been on my mind all of the time. The band are relatively unknown. I wanted to give something back and support them, but had long since retired my CD player in favour of mp3s and Spotify. I ended up buying a vinyl copy for my brother-in-law but it didn’t completely scratch the itch that I had. I wanted to hold this album in my own hands.

When I’ve heard vinyl over the past few years, I’ve generally not been impressed. To my ears it didn’t sound better than a CD or even a good streaming service. That evening with my brother-in-law changed my perception completely. He’s been a vinyl collector for many years and has a lovely set of refurbished 1970s hi-fi separates to play his records on. The sound quality melted the wax in my ears. Somehow this experience paired up with hearing Thought You Knew and I started to think about investing in a decent turntable myself.

After a lot of research I settled on getting a Rega. The reviews for their turntables are overwhelmingly positive wherever you look. The only question was which one of their range to save up for and buy. Although we have a ‘proper’ (cheap) amp and speaker setup in our lounge there isn’t any room to place a turntable nearby, so I had decided that it would sit near to our trusty old Sonos ZonePlayer S5, feeding its signal to the ‘line in’ connection. This would have the added bonus of being able to send the audio to any of the other Sonos units in the house.

As much as I love my Sonos, I was sure that it would quickly become the limiting factor for audio quality — spending more money on a turntable beyond a certain quality level would be pointless — so I sought professional advice from my local hi-fi shop, Deco Audio in Aylesbury.

Located on a generic-looking industrial estate, Deco Audio is a shop where you need to ring the doorbell and wait for someone to come and let you in. When you step through the doors you see why — the shop is filled with beautiful equipment of all shapes and sizes.

I explained that I was looking to buy a Rega, but wasn’t sure whether to go for a Planar 1, a Planar 2, either of these first two with their respective ‘performance pack’1, a Planar 1 plus with an integrated phono stage, or a Planar 3. Too many choices. They made me a coffee, and were only too happy to spend time with me discussing my options. Given that it would be going through the Sonos, they tried to talk me down to the cheapest of the three models. In the end after a bit of debate I plumped for a Planar 2 because (a) the parts can be independently serviced and upgraded over time, (b) it was in stock and (c) I wanted that beautiful glass platter as opposed to the plastic one that comes with the Planar 1. I had to pick up a phono stage as well and went for the simple Rega Fono Mini A2D. Plus some cables, and a carbon fibre record brush to clean the LPs before they get played.

Deco Audio also have a record shop in-house with a great selection of vinyl, all of which has been put through their in-house Moth record cleaner. I spent some time flicking through the racks but was already feeling poor from my impending purchase so I didn’t pick anything up.

It was very exciting to get it home and put it together. Setup was extremely simple — the most difficult part was balancing the tone arm accurately with the counterweight, but watching someone else do it on YouTube first helped.

I had a few records in the house that my parents had passed to me and wasted no time in testing one out. The sound was instantly stunning. A friend paid a visit the next day and was stunned also. Both of us, stunned. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why it sounds so great. I know that in part it is confirmation bias — I really wanted it to be a great experience and I am sure my brain is willing my ears to accept that it is — but that’s not all of it. There’s something different about it sonically, even though it is being output to a speaker that lives firmly in the digital realm. Maybe I’m just listening with more care and purpose again after so many years. By definition, older records will be completely analogue from recording to mixing to mastering (known as ‘AAA’); there is no sampling to create a digital signal and they therefore contain much more information. Whether that makes a difference is up for debate. To me, owning the records, holding them in my hands, caring for them, looking at the artwork, sitting around and purposefully listening is filled with pleasure. Anyway, every man needs a hobby.

There are a couple of things I’ve had to do on the Sonos to make it work well. Firstly, I’ve had to move buffering to maximum. I found that with a low setting I kept getting dropouts when I sent the sound to other speakers in the house. A side effect of this is that there is a substantial delay from what happens on the turntable and what comes out of the speakers. It’s really weird to lift the needle from a record to have the music stop a couple of seconds later. More substantially, if you sit close to the turntable you can hear the unamplified music coming off of the cartridge, and this can be a little distracting from the music from the speakers given that they are behind, particularly when playing something that goes from quiet to loud. Closing the lid on the turntable helps to muffle this noise.

Secondly, I adjusted the level of the line in connection. The Sonos app lets you pick an appropriate level, which has the effect of increasing the ‘default’ volume for the component. I found that setting this quite high as described here gave a better sound without any distortion.

From here on in over the past few weeks it’s been a fun journey, learning the ropes of finding and buying records to play. Discogs is an invaluable resource. Where a particular album has been issued and reissued over the years you can read feedback from people who have heard those particular pressings, add the ones you want to buy to your wantlist and browse and buy copies for sale. There is a wealth of historical pricing information so you can judge whether you are being asked to pay over the odds or getting a bargain. From what I can judge, records are extraordinarily expensive if they are (of course) popular and either (a) extremely rare, (b) original first pressings of something that became really popular or (c) released in the late 1990s/early 2000s when presumably vinyl production and consumption was at its lowest, in effect leading to (a) again. To use Discogs you need to learn the grading nomenclature. Typically ‘Mint’ or ‘Near Mint’ (M/NM) cost top-dollar whereas ‘Very Good Plus’ (VG+) is closer to the median. I’ve now bought a few records via Discogs and have only felt let down by one purchase, but even then the seller refunded me straightaway and even paid my return postage. There’s something magical about coming home to find a well-wrapped package containing a new LP.

I’ve also been buying a few things from Amazon (good, new reissues mainly). They use a lot of packaging but you know what you’re getting and returning any damaged goods would be straightforward. There’s also The Sound of Vinyl which has an excellent clearance page where I managed to pick up a couple of new John Martyn reissues for around £9 each. The Super Deluxe Edition website is worth subscribing to for news of reissues, and regular updates on price drops on the various worldwide Amazon sites. Scott Nangle Audio has some very special releases, such as LPs mastered with a ‘one step’ process at 45 RPM — Bridge Over Troubled Water for £169, anyone? I can’t see me ever going there, even for albums I adore. There are cheaper pressings of lovely records too. Bandcamp is also a good outlet for new vinyl; as far as I can make out they broker the orders and pass them on to the artists/distributors. I ordered something from Bandcamp and Edition Records inadvertantly introduced me to Slowly Rolling Camera by sending me their Juniper album by mistake; they let me keep it, and it was a lovely way to make a great new discovery.

I was fortunate to stumble across the London Jazz Collector blog as I was looking to buy a copy of Waltz For Debby2. His site contains a ton of information on buying records that is worth devouring, including buying online, how to examine vinyl, grading records, how to store your vinyl and record cleaning. There is a wealth of wisdom here.

I also recommend the Vinyl Junkies podcast, particularly their ‘101’ series with episodes on originals vs reissues and ‘the art of crate-digging’.

The question now is what albums to own on vinyl. I’ve been buying much-loved records from my past with a plan to play them at a future Album Club night, as well as a couple of recent discoveries I have made via Spotify. The Guardian ran an article recently that asked whether a decade of Spotify has ruined music. As the author says:

Look: I pay my £9.99 a month. I use Spotify to make playlists for friends’ weddings and to compile 80s curios I discover on TOTP reruns. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. But we can be responsible listeners (I buy albums I listen to more than five times) and hold Spotify to account because the people it is meant to benefit can’t.

Which brings me back around to that wonderful Snowpoet album. If you have the means, the rule of ‘listened to more than five times so then buy it on vinyl’ seems like a good one to me. It’s a great feeling to support an artist that you love through buying the thing that they have made, and this album is so great that I’m happy I’ve been able to buy a copy for me and a copy for a friend. I know I have many hours of enjoyment ahead.

  1. An upgrade to the cartridge, mat and belt at a cost of about £100. 
  2. I now have a cheap but lovely-sounding reissue, not an original. 

Energy use, externalities and climate change

I’ve been thinking about the WB40 podcast discussion on energy use and the difficulty of changing behaviour, as well as the recent news about avoiding climate change. I am sure there is something in the fact that energy is so cheap relative to income that isn’t helping right now. I distinctly remember my dad in the 1980s and early 1990s battling with us over the thermostat and being concerned about the cost of all of our utility bills. We’re all a bit older now, but when I go to my parents house these days — the same house I grew up in — it’s always cosy. I can’t say that I’ve ever not put the heating on due to how much it will cost me. A privileged position perhaps, but I am sure I’m not the only one.

In our school Economics lessons we learned about externalities, defined as ”the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.” They are a form of market failure. As the externalities to our energy consumption are so incredibly massive, wouldn’t it make sense for governments to tax fossil fuel energy consumption to accelerate the switch to renewables?

I’ve been with Bulb, a UK renewable energy provider, for a little while now. Whilst their service is great, I don’t see a great deal of difference in cost from other suppliers. If taxes were ramped up over time to give people the time to switch (and for the country to build capacity), and if taxes were progressive in nature to that bigger users had to bear proportionally more, wouldn’t that make it a no-brainer for people to both switch and use less? Costs of goods and services would go up, but the truth is that those costs are already there — we are just all paying for them together in the form of what’s coming.

I’m sure there are a million reasons why things are a lot more complicated than this. But if we can completely stop the production and use of products containing chlorofluorocarbons worldwide, surely something like this isn’t beyond our reach?

Weeknote #38 — Evening classes

I knew when I was putting things in the diary a little while ago that this would be a busy week, and so it proved. The process of getting the budget done at work has brought our critical work into focus, and I took the opportunity to reboot our daily ‘standup’ team meeting. I now have a small set of graphics for the team to look at each day to remind us of our key goals, how many weeks we have until December when the whole of South Africa seems to go on holiday (eight) and until the end of March when we need to deliver (261). The graphics also show what our immediate and upcoming milestones are that we need to hit. It will take some getting used to — a couple of times this week I stopped discussions about items that aren’t aligned with our key goals — but I can already see the effect on the team as we push to meet the deadlines in front of us. I also plan to include Cost of Delay metrics in the graphics so that the whole team has an understanding about what being late will mean in real terms; hopefully citing these will lend weight to requests we make to teams across the organisation.

We had our first Full Governing Board meeting of the year on Wednesday. I’m both very happy and slightly sad to say that I now have ‘Vice’ in front of my title of Chair of Governors, having handed the main role over to a colleague. She is going to do an excellent job and I am very happy that she is willing to take on the work. It’s been a real pleasure and a privilege to have the Chair’s role for the past three years. I had stepped up to it with some reluctance given that I work full time and it has been a struggle. I love the work of supporting the school through governance and I am hoping that a reduced role will give me the opportunity to do a better, more focused job.

Liberating Structures

On Monday evening I went along to the Digital Project Managers London meetup to learn about Liberating Structures. It had been a while since I attended meetup and the description pulled me in, promising “simple rules for groups, designed to include everyone in shaping the future” which “harness the creativity and intelligence of everyone in the room, whilst having more fun”. I wasn’t disappointed.

In a nutshell, Liberating Structures are tools and techniques, ’microstructures’ and constraints, that can be applied to group situations to get people to participate, leading to better outcomes. Yes, I was sceptical too. But by the end of our first exercise I could immediately see their value and wanted to learn more.

The Liberating Structures menu

The Liberating Structures menu

The first exercise we did was Triz. Heaven knows where the name comes from but it does make it easy to remember. Here’s what we did:

  • We were each asked to imagine what an organisation would look like if it had a complete lack of trust, and to write down what things would go on there.
  • After a couple of minutes we were asked to share these with each other on our table, and eventually with the room.
  • Next, we were asked what behaviours from our list we recognise about the the situation we are currently in or where we work.
  • Finally, we had to think about what action we could take to avoid or stop those things from happening.

The effect was astounding. By focusing on a generic situation in the first step we could completely de-personalise the process, with the latitude to be much more creative without getting bogged down by the baggage of real life. It immediately got me thinking that this would be a very useful exercise to do with the programme team that I am leading — they all expect me to know what I am doing and possibly may not always speak up if things start to go off the rails, or if they spot that something isn’t getting done when it should be. By de-personalising an exercise where the team can jot down ideas on the worst programme they can imagine, they would likely get many more insights out into the room that we could then reflect on as a group. In our session, the whole exercise was complete in a very short space of time and was extremely powerful. It wouldn’t take much to apply this technique at work.

Next, we got into groups of three to try out Troika Consulting. One of us agreed to be ‘the client’ and the other two of us were ‘the consultants’. The client had a minute or two to explain to us a situation that they were having a problem with. The consultants we were then given two minutes to ask clarifying questions of the client. After that, the client turned around 180° and stood with his back to us while the two consultants debated his issue and possible solutions to it. The client could say nothing while we were doing this and we discussed the problem like he wasn’t there. This was really interesting to me, as the other consultant and I had completely different views as to what the client should do. When our time was up, the client turned back around and de-briefed us on what he had heard, what he found valuable and what he was thinking of doing as a result. Once again, this was so simple but remarkably effective — our client told us that it was the best meeting he had had in some time.

Finally we had a go at What, So What, Now What? This exercise didn’t land with as much impact as the others but it did get me thinking. David Heath, who led the session, asked us to jot down what we had observed about the evening and its exercises. For this ‘What?’ part of the exercise he emphasised that we should ‘keep low’ on the ‘ladder of inference’ and make sure that we were noting down pure observations only. This is actually a lot harder than it first sounds, and we got a little hung up on whether you can actually ever truly observe whether someone had been engaged by the work. Nevertheless, it was an interesting process.

By the time we reached ‘Now What?’ we had lots of people across the room committing to find out more about Liberating Structures and taking the exercises back to work with them.

At the end of a Meetup there is usually a little bit of pizza and chat with the other attendees. Generally I end up feeling slightly awkward at these things, sometimes finding myself going down cul-de-sacs of conversation that have no easy exits and trying to carefully judge listening and talking too much. This time was an exception — there was a great crowd and I met some very interesting people, swapping contact details at the end of the night with a definite intent to follow up and talk more. A brilliant evening.

Telling stories with data

After work on Tuesday I wandered over to the offices of The Guardian in King’s Cross. I had signed up to a short evening course called Telling Stories With Data: [An] Introduction To Hand-Drawn Data Visualisation. It was exciting to be in a place that plays such a big part in my everyday life with the news that I consume, and after having read many tweets from Simon Ricketts about the late-night happenings there. After a quick security check I was shown up the escalator to reception where I kept my phone in my pocket and people-watched for half an hour or so, wondering who everyone was and what they did for a job as they streamed out of the office. I’m 90% sure that Gary Younge wandered past at one point, but I wasn’t sure enough to say hello.

Once there was a critical mass of us we were shown through the security barriers to the staff canteen where various drinks had been laid on for everyone. There were a couple of evening masterclasses running so there were lots of us there, all engaged in slightly awkward chat as we waited.

Stefanie Posavec was our tutor for the evening. I wasn’t familiar with her work until signing up for the course, but it turned out that we were in great hands. Stefanie had undertaken a project called Dear Data with Giorgia Lupi, a fellow information designer, where they created postcard visualisations about different aspects of their lives, every week for a year. The results are beautiful and fascinating, and the result of many many hours of labour. We only had three hours, which was only enough time to scratch the surface, so we had to get scratching.

Stefanie took us thriough the basics, breaking down what data visualisation is (“a way of presenting data that uses visual perception in order to increase our understanding”) and what it isn’t (digital poster infographics). We learned that the main functions of a data visualisation could be to explain, to explore or to exhibit. (I had a good chat with Stefanie in a break about the exhibit part on how data visualisations can be good just through being visually pleasing.) In a short space of time, we had been equipped with a language and learned that data, rules, visual variables and visual perception all come together to make a data visualisation.

We were put into groups of three and given a simple data set to work with, containing details of the top 20 bestselling albums of all time according to Wikipedia. We had sales figures, years of release, genders of the performers, genres of music and country of origin to work with. We had to come up with a visual language for how we would represent the information and then get to work drawing a single glyph for each album.

I ended up in a wonderfully diverse team, an IT guy alongside a female graphic designer from Canada and a lady studying for a masters in drama. Once we’d figured out what we were doing and had created all of our glyphs we now had to find an interesting way of representing them. We decided to cluster the information by its prominent features and ended up creating a ‘music tree’:

Most of the other teams used some kind of graph axes to plot their glyphs, showing quantifiable data alongside the categorical information. Our creation was missing something by not having the years of release visible on the visualisation, but the size of the circles already showed the amount of sales so we felt that re-using this wasn’t essential.

It was a fun night with a great instructor and lovely people once again. Stefanie has sent us her slides and I’ll definitely be referring to them again.

Home time

Yet another weekend of childrens’ sport kept us busy as usual. My eldest boy must be half-aquatic as he braved the Birmingham rain on his way to achieving second place in the U13 National Road Relay along with his two teammates. Both boys made their football matches on Sunday and it was lovely to be out in the sunshine — we had one win and one loss, but both of them are really enjoying it this season.

Next week

Increasing the focus and keeping the pressure on at work to get through our near-term milestones over the next two to three weeks. Re-establishing our weekly team meeting. Getting out on my bike again, cycling to Oxford for the start of the Chiltern Cross-Country League with both boys competing this year. And Album Club #92.

  1. Look out for weeknote 64!