Week notes: 27 November – 3 December 2023

Passive buffs, stress-performance paradox, AI is like an American Bully XL.

Brr! Have you been at the controls? 

I’ve got 3 advent calendars on the go now: Pact Coffee, Cadburys Heroes and I thought about that a lot. The coffee is strong, but ITATAL is stronger, coming straight out the gates on 1st December with this post bristling with justified anger about the kind of performative “rent-a-minority” diversity work that protects organisations’ reputations but helps no-one. 

That article would probably have gone over my head 18 months ago. But in that time I’ve thought and learnt a lot about mine and other white people’s duty to get uncomfortable in order to dismantle racism, thanks to some deep and challenging work at the BFI in partnership with the What If Experiment

Even so, it’s hard to keep it front-of-mind – which is the nature of privilege isn’t it? Like a passive buff in a video game unbalancing the stats in the background. So – the article was a helpful reminder, to not need reminding, least of all by people who don’t ever get to forget.

Work wins 💪

I had a big week, with a couple of notable successes.

First, we signed an agreement forming a terrific new external partnership, which lots of smart colleagues have worked hard on for months. That’s all I can say about it here until it’s announced. But – a mission was accomplished. 

Second, I presented an update on progress and plans (on growing our digital platforms) to the BFI board of govs. This task loomed large in my thoughts all November and I was stressing a bit last week when the key messages and structure were eluding me.

But the slides and script came together last weekend, and it went across brilliantly in the room on Thursday – one colleague even called it a “masterclass in presenting”. Get in!

Of course, what impressed the board most was the brilliant work my teams are doing – which I was merely talking about. But doing justice to that (to a mixed audience) was partly why I was feeling the pressure.

I generally do get good feedback on presentations and even enjoy performing at the time, but none of that lessens the dread and overthinking for the next one. There’s a stress-performance paradox here, nicely summed up in this Slack exchange with the boss.

Slack messages. Ben Roberts says "Well done - that was great." Neil williams says "Thank you! Wasn't it?!?! I should worry less. But then maybe it would be less good". Ben replies "Exactly. Keep doing it the way you do it"

Bugger! Turns out there’s a name for this: the Yerkes-Dodson Law (or the saucier sounding “inverted-U model of arousal”). Pretty obvious as psych science goes but helpful nonetheless.

In other news, I caught up with some Croydon Digital Service alumni on Friday – two of whom are still making services better for the Cronx, and three who dispersed to Microsoft, Home Office Digital and GDS. Good to catch up and I got a lot out of swapping notes – including a metaphor from Natasha that AI safety is like an American Bully XL: responsibility lies with breeders, trainers and owners, not the untamed beast itself.  

We’re close to publishing a first iteration of guidance for BFI staff on how to harness and play with AI safely. Does feel like we’re all living through the start of profound change on par with email at the end of last century. Quick, get Tom and Meg back together for You’ve Got AI

But also, calm down everyone, making your services meet users’ needs and using data well is a bigger innovation than you realise. In other words no hype tech “innovation” until everything works

Meanwhile that British Library ransomware attack is nasty. My heart went out to their tech, leadership and comms teams when I saw their crisis comms on Twitter/X

In case you missed it, I’ve kicked off a new series on this blog, buying and reviewing one thing from every shop on the Crystal Palace triangle. First one is written, scheduled to publish tomorrow. It’s a fun thing to do, and I hope I’ve also managed to make it fun to read.

🔍 Found/interesting 🤔 

Blog-based bits: 

Lovely collective of cleverclog devs Go Free Range (who wrote the first commits with me for gov.uk/government) are building a cool co-op alternative to Bandcamp. (Via Russell

I own a Remarkable 2, but my use of it has tanked to near zero. Their brand new smart checklist feature in combo with Ryder’s new BuJo notation, might change that.

You must fuck around and find out. Love it.

The different flavours of service design by Emma Parnell (via Dave’s always-ace newsletter)

More from Dave. His emerging local gov digital quality model now has its own website.

Excellent work-in-progress thoughts on roadmaps from Tom Dolan (and another top example of sharing early while developing something)

I posted this stone-cold classic by Dan Sheldon in reply to someone on Twitter asking about “portals”, and it got a lot of likes from people who’d never seen it so here it is again: The Government IT Self Harm Playbook

Another shout out for excellent weeknotes from BFI digital folks: Anna and Jem and Oliver.

Two book lists: 

Watching, listening, playing, reading

There is a scene in Dream Scenario (it will be obvious which one if you’ve seen it) that had me howling with laughter. Sick of Myself by the same Director Kristoffer Borgli was one of my favourites of last year. I am so here for all these Nordic horror-tinged social satires – I love Ruben Östlund’s films too. Would welcome any recommendations in a similar vein.

We (me, wife, kids) went to WiFi Wars at BAFTA on Friday – a live comedy show about the history of video games where you play along on your phone. (If you ever saw Go 8 Bit, it’s the same people). Here’s my moment of glory on the Pacman leaderboard (beaten by Mrs Doubtfire, ironically given last week’s note!)

A top ten scoreboard for Pacman, on a big screen with a presenter standing in front with a mic. At 6, MRSDOUBTFIRE. At =7, NEILLYNEIL

Enjoying The Rap Game but annoyed, same as every season, at what feels to us like glaringly sexist double standards by judges Target, Krept and Konan. I’m backing Croydon girl Lickz for the win – hoping K&K’s bias for their ends will outweigh the show’s misogyny. But I doubt it. 

My friend Alex sent me 6 Music’s albums of the year. Working my way through it (with mixed results). 

Revisited Children of Men to introduce it to the kids – bleaker than I remembered. Those one-shot sequences towards the end are incredible. 


Doritos Silent – AI powered crunch cancellation

Thorpe Park brand history and rebrand. It needed a refresh, but not sure they nailed it. Feels like a missed opportunity but maybe it’s a grower. What do you think, design friends?

Furiosa trailer – exciting! Fallout TV series looks promising too.

  1. I’m not saying he’s Alan Turing, but he was the first to push the boundaries of the pre-internet Civil Service Code by working in the open online, leading then Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson to produce the first ever guidelines to open the door for everyone else.  ↩︎

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