Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Over-used words #4: Efficiency

What it’s ‘sposed to mean: something that is running as lean and mean as it can be, working at optimum, doing its job as simply and directly as possible, with zero faff and zero wastage.

How it’s used: Nothing more than "making savings" rather than actually "making something work better". Excuse me. Before I go on, I should say this one is a little more serious than mild annoyance or pedantry, and as such I am about to lose my sense of humour and get polemical, even political (although, if you notice, all of these "over-used words" posts thus far have been about the [ab]use of language for power purposes).


I am really talking about how the term "efficiency" is often misused in the workplace, or by government (central or local) - all too often as a by-word for cuts, whether funding or staff. Doing more with less. Getting added value out of the bare minimum. Working smart. Rationalising. And all that good businessman’s horse-sense stuff.

Here’s the thing: Efficiency does not just mean saving money or scaling something down. There is something absolutely key here – to be efficient, something STILL HAS TO WORK. If your service or product is worse after “efficiency” savings, then the word “efficiency” is a misnomer.

An overloaded system is not an efficient one. If you have more coming down that conveyor belt than you can deal with then stuff will back up and fall off, or pass by without being properly processed, or processed at all – and that is wastage, and wastage is not efficient.

Worse, if you’re asked to be in two or three places, doing two or three different things, at once (which you wouldn’t think you'd have to point out was impossible, but people do surprise you) then the system is simply just not working.

And if your new system is a constant stretch and struggle to keep going, it is not efficient either – true efficiency, once up and running, should involve less effort, not more.

Vorsprung Durch Technik

The word “efficient” used to bring to mind (stereotypically) German engineering or the Roman army – something strict, precise, reliable, meticulous, infinitely functional, impeccably trained and relentlessly performing time after time, like the fabled well-oiled machine – it absolutely does not mean over-stretched and under-resourced, running on a combination of corner cutting, a skeleton crew close to burn-out or collapse, and petrol fumes.

Of course, one shouldn’t automatically sneer at the term – it can mean what it’s supposed to: Re-organising something in a way that makes more sense; simplifying needlessly complicated systems; smoothing out blockages; dividing the workload in a more rational, straightforward and targeted way, so every drop of energy reliably achieves something valuable; making sure everyone and everything is placed where most useful, to get the best out of each... Good. If that’s the case.

But that’s not always possible – it still takes a certain investment of time and resources to get there. Yes, austere times can drive a push towards true efficiency, but it’s not a one way-street. Austerity can just as easily screw up things that once worked just fine - by over-stretching them and sending them limping into a slow, sad decline.

Cheery old Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” a nice observation on the character-building effects of struggle and suffering, not to mention the “thrive or die” efficiency of nature (though not true in every case – a frontal lobotomy doesn't do either) - but then some struggle and suffering does just kill us, even if it takes a bit of time. Cheery old me.

More Business-Speak

When the word “efficiency” is bandied about, I find it useful to think of two other terms and ask if, actually, these are what’s really going on/going to happen. The following are clunky business-speak terms, yes - not the most poetic parlance to slide silkily off the tongue - but I like them, if only as very - yes - efficient fire-power for a business-speak counter-attack:

False Economy: something that may seem like a saving or simplification on paper, but which ends up generating more cost and complexity in the real world – usually because it ignores the fine details or wider/long-term repercussions. The unforeseen cost is usually a result of sorting out the mess made by the original “saving” – like pushing down a lump in one place only for it to pop up elsewhere.

Opportunity Cost: a term known by every A Level business student, yet constantly overlooked in practice. Where your focus on one aspect of your workforce's activity is actually costing them the opportunity to be doing other things - often things that are taken for granted, and hence overlooked - that are actually important to the health and success of the organisation/business. For example an extreme focus on productivity at the expense of the opportunity to think and reflect - ie. show intelligence, solve problems and come up with new and better ideas; or heaping more and more duties on fewer and fewer staff, which may seem value for money, but costs them the opportunity to spend time, effort, care and attention on what they were doing before – which in turn can cost the organisation dearly in terms of the quality of work and good communication, not to mention morale.

Body Pump

The over-use of “efficiency” is a hangover from better, more voluptuous times. It may have been valid when the first cuts were being made and workplaces were bloated with unproductive, unnecessary and unwieldy practices and appendages. Maybe. But for many services and businesses today, at shop floor level, the enemy is no longer waste and sloth, it is paucity and exhaustion. Insisting on greater “efficiency” in an already critically over-stretched system, after the nth round of belt-tightening and redundancies, is like telling an emaciated, starving family they need to stop snacking so much and get down Body Pump. It beggars belief, makes the tears stand out in the eyes - and is not helpful to anyone. At all.

We are not fighting the flab here anymore, we are fighting malnourishment – and unless “efficiency” refers to reducing the workload and not the workforce, it’s just an insult - and a lie.

Ok, that’s more than enough seriousness for one night. Look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MJySO7PGg

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Taste Bigotry

This was supposed to be about the polarisation of people’s aesthetic tastes – with graphs like the one on the left. That graph’s axes are not exhaustive by a long shot – there could also be simple vs complex (NOT the same as visceral vs cerebral), playful vs sombre and so on. I may yet sling up such graphs, filled out with examples, but I’m sure you get the gist. For now this: What turned into a damn essay on taste bigotry, and the tension between the trads and the moderns...

Earlier this year I had one of those phases where I developed a sudden interest in something and, as is my wont, immersed myself in it for a few months: Modernist architecture.

Leafing through beginners guides to all the various movements, manifestos and Stijls, I noticed, unsurprisingly, that there were an awful lot of “shoulds” and “musts” about the way forward for slinging together some rooms n that.

I got it – the new, young, passionate architects were tired of the same old shit, and keen to lay out their vision, embrace technology, fresh thinking, the new demands of modern living – to make their mark and change the world, which they largely did, hence all the books about them.

But I couldn’t help a wry smile at all the “musts” and “shoulds”, the new rules that must be adhered to – because I kept thinking “Why?”

Technology must not be hidden away, but proudly on display said the futurists; architecture should make use of strong vertical and horizontal lines, all black and white and primary colours, said De Stijl enthusiasts; decoration must be binned in favour of simple, functional forms said the minimalists.

Radical, exciting and seminal ideas for sure, and they have been validated by continued use – but why the “MUST”? Why so imperative? Because that’s the way it’s so often stated – as if EVERYTHING DONE BY EVERYBODY FROM NOW ON MUST BE THIS WAY or dismissed as creaky old bollocks.

Fair enough, it’s only the more extreme exponents who talk like this, and it is the passion talking, and passion is a good thing – but it made me smile because it was all so familiar from looking back through the history of spheres I was more familiar with – in particular “popular” music. The beatniks, the hippies, the punks, synth pioneers, trailblazers of various dance and electronica genres... they all had their share of prophets insisting the old ways were crap and wrong and dead and things SHOULD be done differently now, and here are the new rules.

Basically, the same very-human responses can be found in any sphere that has developed and progressed – everything has its fashions, its iconoclasts and trend-setters, from visual art to literature to philosophy to... fashion itself.

So much for iconoclasts. While I admire their fire, I’m often a little cool on their single-mindedness and short memory. Seems a bit... well... closed, and the emphasis on erasing history a bit... well... Stalin. And it’s got to be said, the attitude that things MUST be this way (while defending a new idea) smells rather reminiscent of the similarly intolerant and diversity-dismissing attitude of the trad crowd (defending old ideas).


Classic ideas. Time-honoured ideas. Back to basics ideas. Authentic ideas. None of this new-fangled, faddy nonsense. On the one hand the trads can be a bit fuddy-duddy, like your mate’s dad who is baffled by anything outside his own cultural reference points – where all modern art is dismissed as “not real art, can’t even paint a proper picture”, all modern buildings are “bloody eye-sores” and all modern music is “not real music, it’s just talking/shouting/noise, can’t even sing/play, sounds like a drum kit falling down the stairs,” etc etc.

That kind of thinking is easy to take the piss out of and dismiss as ignorant philistinism – but often overlooked is the equally entrenched ideology of the young trads, rediscovering and re-asserting the “real” and “authentic” from yesteryear - from the current antidote-to-throwaway-culture passion for cosy, traditional skills, crafts and way of doing things (baking, knitting, iron-mongery, Polaroid photography, collecting vinyl records) to the perennial muso’s insistence that recording on analogue equipment is just better, that one must use “real” instruments recorded live and no gimmicky effects, that there is a soul in the simplicity of folk or delta blues or 60s jingle-jangle that is impossible to attain by any other method.

There is a clear merit to this as there are a lot of good things that have been, or are in danger of being, lost - and this fights the good fight against the fickle and forgetful march of so-called “progress”. But there is the point at which it tips over into young fuddy-duddyism, a retro-hipster’s snobby wet dream, recoiling from anything new. It can all get so worthy and backwards-looking that it becomes stifling and restrictive – The trad crowd’s accusation that any musical artist who tries anything experimental is “pretentious” is a case in point, and massively ironic. Sure, arty/experimental types may have high-falutin’ ideas that they don’t quite reach, but they often have an imagination, sense of humour and playfulness that worthy trad types lack completely. One of the meanings of pretentious is “takes itself too seriously, thinks it’s more profound than it is” – which for my money describes the “authentic” trad crowd precisely.

Paradoxically, the lets-get-back-to-basics trads are also often iconoclasts. As much as the futurists, they also want to wipe away the status quo and set up a better, golden future, but by harking back to an imagined golden past. Rather like the Nazis did.


One of the problems I have is the unjustified leap-of-logic gaps at play here. One is the generalisation from what you like about a specific thing to sweeping, unjustified claims about whole genres, trends and styles.

Now, everyone has tastes. Everyone finds certain themes, moods, approaches and outlooks resonate more naturally with them. If you pay attention to how what you like is put together you will find recurring elements you can pick out and pin down – but the results are sometimes not quite what you thought. It could be as simple as a preference for certain harmonies and chord changes whatever the genre, certain sounds in a certain frequency range, certain materials or colour palettes or geometric structures and shapes. It could be that for some reason some element of an artwork evokes a mood you enjoy, or dreams and aspirations you have. Or it could be something opens your eyes to new possibilities or chimes neatly with your past experience. But it’s one thing to describe these elements specifically when talking about a specific thing, and another to then say everything of a similar genre, or made by certain group, must be “authentic” and everything not, “crap”. But people do that all the time.

Another leap is the gap between “I’m fed up of this and want to do this instead” and “This must be got rid of and everyone must do this”. There is no justification for that jump – it’s a simple case of “Everyone must think what I do, or they are tw*ts”.

We tend to lump radical idealists together but, for my money, there are two clear trends – one of which I have sympathy with and one of which I’m inherently suspicious of.

On the one hand you have the open-minded, expansive attitude: those who say things don’t need to be like they are, or have been – that we can cut loose, man, from old or current thinking, strive for change, try new things and new ways of being. Some experimentation will work out and change the world, some will peter out as naive and flawed idealism, but the point is to try, to encourage innovation and variety.

On the other hand is the closed-minded and restrictive attitude: once the “new ways” have been established something else creeps in – a dismissive, cooler-than-thou sneer towards anyone who isn’t on-board as the enemy to be stamped out. And anything not associated with the “new ways” becomes untouchable, the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater. This is simple bigotry, really, at best discouraging of free-thinking and diversity, at worst downright dangerous.


Because while it might not seem to matter when talking about the silly subject of art and entertainment, such closed, prejudiced thought processes are precisely the kind of thing going on in the mind of any bigot, just translated into the sphere of politics, culture and society.

The philosophers Depeche Mode (in their sweet-but-cringingly-naive industro-pop hit People Are People) said: “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man, help me understand.” Well, Martin (Gore, who, I think you’ll find, sings that bit, not lead singer Dave Gahan), this may help. If someone is refusing to acknowledge anything good beyond the tiny cluster of things that make up their single-minded obsessions – and worse, Martin, calling for all else to be stamped out and their vision thrust on everyone – then there lie the seeds of alarming, hate-breeding intolerance, even if all they are doing is messing about with paint. Thank God they’re a penniless artist and not in government, is all I’ve got to say, Martin.

Ok, it may not matter in art and entertainment – but that kind of thinking is still a bad habit and (if I’m allowed to use a “should” of my own) I think it should be challenged when it crops up.

It may seem trifling but sweeping generalisations like “all pop music is throwaway trash”, “all guitar music is boring” or “all electronic music is soulless” are groundless prejudice – that because something has often been that way, that it must always be so. If someone manages to wrestle high emotion out of “clinical” digital software, or creates something genuinely fresh and new out of the old and traditional methods, you are probably in the presence of genius – or at least something remarkable and exciting – because someone has done something that has eluded others. But the closed minded will completely miss such possibilities.

That said, certain ways of doing things have certain features, and lend themselves better to some experiences than others. The mistake is often to judge one type of thing with the criteria of another, and miss the joy to be found by judging it on its own merits. You don’t go to abstract art to see a pretty landscape. You don’t read Kafka for the laughs. You don’t go to a Bauhaus building for cosy rustic charm. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be enjoyed or enraptured by there.

You don’t go to genre-shattering experimental electronica for emotional, intimate lyrics, nor acoustic ballardry for cutting-edge, rule-book-trashing new sounds. There is joy in both and room in the world for all. And there is room in yourself – to explore a kaleidoscopic variety of moods, tastes, and types of thing. Tying yourself to restrictive “shoulds” and “musts” will only cut you off from whole continents of experience – of what is, what was and what might be. Cut loose, man.