Stop digging?

Antonym No. 12

The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.
– Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Dear Reader

The nature of WhatsApp memes is that everyone seems to have seen them before you. I rarely share them without a “seen it” coming back at me from someone, so increasingly I assume others have seen them and don’t bother at all.

However, this one, via Katie Moffat is perfection. It’s art. It captures the moment perfectly. The moment being one where despite every effort in home-schooling, remote-working, business-running, life-saving, relative-missing, sanity salving effort one has made for the last 12 months or more, fate continues to mock and laugh at our puny attempts to dig ourselves out.

Anyway, since digging the EVERGREEN out of the Suez canal’s bank is not inside our circle of influence, let’s talk about something more useful.

"Hodges remembers an old saying: even on the darkest day, the sun shines on some dog’s ass."
– Mr Mercedes, by Stephen King

Wine: Go East!

I never know what’s going to come out in this newsletter and am surprised as you are that this week we’re going to talk about wine. As a friend of mine at university used to say, “Drink’s not the answer, but it’s a good place to hide out for a couple of days.”

The big thing for the past decade or so in wine has been Pinot Noir. This grape is on the move, though, because of climate change the regions it has been traditionally grown are too hot for the thin-skinned variety. Germany is now producing very good pinots, apparently.

What’s the next big thing, then? Well, according to Jancis Robinson, the wines of Eastern Europe, or regional grape varieties. Wine producers from Macedonia to Armenia are back in business after some collapsed in the wake of the fall of the USSR, their main market.

In her half-hour Zoom wine tasting session as part of the recent FTWeekend spring conference, Robinson praised the quality of wine-making. My favourite was this huge red from Macedonia (above). (£8.95 from Tanners.)

The most fascinating was this gorgeous Yerevan which is from a grape variety called Rkatsiteli, traces of which have been found in amphora from 3,000 years ago – DNA testing shows that these grapes are 65% wild vine, so the variety is very close to the original domesticated crops that produced the first wines. (£9.95 a bottle from Tanners.)

With Burgundy-produced wine is now the cryptocurrency of the hedge-funded show off high net worth crowd. Head East for the new (old) wines!

Read more about eastern European wines in Jancis Robinson’s recent column.


Now we’ve had some wine, can we talk about burnout?

There’s been a lot in my feeds about burnout this week. Many of us are feeling burnout-y. Trainee investment bankers at Goldman Sachs are discovering that becoming a vampire squid1 beneficiary isn’t great for work-life balance. A quote in the FT puts its finger on the real tragedy of burnout: presence as politics, overwork as a performance, even if sometimes a billable performance.

The former banker who was chided for leaving work at 11pm recalled that “a huge amount of what I did can be done away with. The work was pointless . . . the best bankers are the ones that come in with two to three pages or no presentation at all because they know what they are talking about.”

Increasing amounts of the work can be done more chepaly elsewhere or by robots (which are now writing investment reports at Morningstar, for instance).

The work isn’t the point. So what is? Like the jargon of in-groups (see the section on police terminology below).

But what is burnout?

Burnout's a term we often use without fully understanding what it means, but it gets across a kind of extreme depletion in energy and abilities that needs and urgent and significant response. Like stopping work for a while. 

A Harvard Business Review article goes into depth about how the condition has been scientifically defined and measured. It's technical in places but it is also useful in its description of different types of burnout.

HBR | How to Measure Burnout Accurately and Ethically

It is now clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated burnout and related forms of workplace distress, across many industries. This has led more organizations to become more aware of burnout, and more concerned about what to do about it. We felt it was the right time to assess the use of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) in organizations. This article will give an overview about what the MBI is, cover some concerning ways that it is being misused, and show how employers should use it for the benefit of employees, organizations, and the world’s understanding of burnout.

The MBI aligns with the World Health Organization’s 2019 definition of burnout as a legitimate occupational experience that organizations need to address, characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

  3. Reduced professional efficacy

[…] new research has revealed how to bring together all three MBI dimensions in a comprehensive and meaningful way. This new scoring procedure for the three dimensions generates five profiles of people’s work experience:

  • Burnout: negative scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy

  • Overextended: strong negative score on exhaustion only

  • Ineffective: strong negative score on professional efficacy only

  • Disengaged: strong negative score on cynicism only

  • Engagement: strong positive scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy

The fact that diagnosis changes overtime is a reminder of the subjectivity and difficulty in categorising mental health issues. The framework is more useful than not – as well as a way for employers and support professionals to see that there is a problem, it can be very helpful for individuals to see a set of symptoms that correlate with their own experience. When you’re ground down and exhausted, it’s hard to know if you’re in trouble.

IC4 male deploying jargon to dehumanise protestor prior to discretionary use of force

Watching Spiral (Engenages) recently my wife and I imagined what it would be like if the violent, rule-breaking squad of Parisian detectives were to encounter Line of Duty’s anti-corruption squad. I could imagine Xxxx spouting a load of technical [[jargon]] before Berthaud mutters “put” and Gilou gives him a friendly clip round the ear. [[jargon]]

I don’t know how true to life the casual subversion of the law and almost pally violence of Spiral is, but apparently the acronyms and officialese of Line of Duty are spot on:

Wired UK | Line of Duty’s daft jargon masks a big real-world policing problem 

Police jargon has shifted over the years from being rooted in the language of the white working classes – of being a genuine form of slang, into a new, corporate-speak, rich in acronyms and euphemisms. “You don’t get imagery, metaphor or figurative language,” Thorne says. “It’s technical language, it’s the language of authority, it’s legalistic language.”

How we speak matters a lot. Language shapes thought, shapes action.

For law enforcement, jargon serves multiple purposes. One is purely practical. “There’s a lot of process, a lot of procedure, a lot of law, and often jargon is used as a way of summarising that,” says Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation think tank. It saves time. 

But there’s another aspect to it too, argues Tony Thorne, a linguist and visiting professor at King’s College London. Thorne researches the niche language used by subcultures – earlier in his career he focussed on business jargon, while more recently he’s become an expert in the slang used by young people and groups such as drill musicians. “These are what linguists call ‘in-group’ varieties of language,” he says. “The dual function is to include members of the in-group, and by implication exclude outsiders.”

The example of police jargon is vivid, but also an opportunity to think about where, when and most importantly why we use jargon ourselves.

The tragic story of the beginning of the Kent variant

The Kent variant (or the English Variant, to the rest of the world) B.1.1.7 felt like Covid-19's second act. By the end of last year things seemed to be getting better and we were looking forward to a better 2021.

Reuters has an in-depth story about how the variant was detected and how it devastated the deprived community of the Isle of Sheppey on the periphery of Kent where it took hold.

The new variant quickly spread from Kent across London and southern England, going from an estimated 3% of cases in England at the end of October to 96% at the start of February. The surge pushed Britain’s Covid death toll into six figures; it now stands at 126,000. Two-thirds of those deaths have occurred since Sept. 20, when the variant was first detected.

The more detailed reporting there is about the development of the pandemic, the more fascinating stories of achievement, ambition and strokes of luck there are. Take also this story: The London bus trip that saved a million lives.

Writing notes on paper beats writing on screens for learning

A paper from the University of Tokyo suggests we retain more information if we take notes on paper than on screens.

Summary: Although volunteers wrote by hand both with pen and paper or stylus and digital tablet, researchers say paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper. Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.

Keita Umejima, Takuya Ibaraki, Takahiro Yamazaki, Kuniyoshi L. Sakai. Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory RetrievalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2021; 15 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158

One of the paper’s authors, "Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize."

Tech journalist Clive Thompson would agree. His short presentation on taking notes on paper but writing long form on a keyboard is lovely.

But things aren’t quite as simple as paper = good, screen = bad. For instance, I take notes in meetings or while watching talks often on paper. But then I will add key things to my Roam Research database, and also store bookmarks and highlights there. In fact, this newsletter is basically a review of the notes I make there.

While taking notes on paper is better for our organic recall, storing them in a connected, digital format makes them more discoverable when we are researching or putting together a piece of work about a complex subject.

There are no rules for machine+mind optimal ways of working or learning that we should take as inviolable or universal, certainly not while the technology and its relationship with our minds is evolving so quickly.

There’s also the possibility that we will find new ways to outsource bits of thinking to our machines in new ways. As Thompson notes in his book Smarter Than You Think:

The “extended mind” theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we’ve always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory.

Quick links

That’s it for this week.

Thanks for reading – and I hope you find some time to stop digging and relax this week.



Matt Taibbi coined this unforgettable description of Goldman Sachs in a 2010 article for Rolling Stone magazine in its first paragraph:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.