Monday, May 15, 2023

The bad boy of bar charts: William Playfair

A spy, a scoundrel, and a scholar

William Playfair was all three. He led an extraordinary life at the heart of many of the great events of the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly in morally dubious roles. Among all the intrigue, scandal, and indebtedness, he found time to invent the bar chart and pie chart and make pioneering use of line charts. As we'll see, he was quite a character.

Playfair the scoundrel

Playfair's lifetime (1759-1823) contained some momentous events:

  • The development of the steam engine
  • The French revolution
  • American independence and the establishment of a new US government
  • The introduction of paper money

and in different ways, some of them fraudulent, Playfair played a role.

He was born in 1759 in Dundee, Scotland, and due to his father's death, he was apprenticed to the inventor of the threshing machine at age 13. From there, he went to work for one of the leading producers of steam engines, James Watt. So far, this is standard "pull yourself up by your bootstraps with family connections" stuff. Things started to go awry when he moved to London in 1782 where he set up a silversmith company and was granted several patents. The business failed with some hints of impropriety, which was a taste of things to come.

In 1787, he moved to Paris where he sold steam engines and was a dealmaking middleman. This meant he knew the leading figures of French society. He was present at the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and may have had some mid-level command role there. During the revolution, he continued to do deals and work with the French elite, but he made enemies along the way. As the reign of terror got going, Playfair fled the country.

Before fleeing, Playfair had a hand in the Scioto Company, a company formed to sell land to settlers in the Ohio Valley in the new United States. The idea of setting up in a new land was of course attractive to the French elite who could see how the revolution was going.  The trouble was, the land was in territory controlled by Native Americans and it was also undeveloped and remote. In other words, completely unsuited for the French Bourgeoisie who were buying the land for a fresh start. The scheme even ended up entangling George Washington. It all ended badly and the US government had to step in to clean up the mess. This is considered to be the first major scandal in US history.

By 1793, Playfair was back in London where he helped formed a security bank, similar to institutions he'd been involved with in France.  Of course, it failed with allegations of fraud.

Playfair had always been a good writer and good at explaining data. He'd produced several books and pamphlets, and by the mid-1790s, he was trying to earn a living at it. But things didn't go too well, and he ended up imprisoned for debt in the notorious Fleet Prison (released in 1802). He tried to write his way out of debt, and notably, some of his most influential books were written while in prison.

There were no official government spying agencies at the time, but the British government quite happily paid for freelancers to do it, which may be an early example of "plausible deniability". Playfair was one such freelance secret agent. He discovered the secrets of the breakthrough French semaphore system while living in Frankfurt and handed them over to the British government in the mid-1790s. He was also the mastermind behind an audacious scheme to bring down the French government through massive counterfeiting and inflation.  The idea was simple, counterfeit French "paper money" and flood the country with high-quality fakes, stoking inflation and bringing down the currency and hence the government. The scheme may have worked as the currency collapsed and Napoleon took power in a coup in 1799, though Napoleon was worse for the British government than what had existed before.

By 1816, Playfair was broke again. What better way to get money quickly than a spot of blackmail targeted against Lord Archibald Douglas, the wealthiest man in Scotland? If you can dispute his parentage (and therefore his rights to his fortune), you can make a killing. Like many of Playfair's other schemes, this one failed too.

Bar charts and pie charts

Playfair invented the bar chart in his 1786 book, "Commercial and Political Atlas". He wanted to show Scottish imports and exports but didn't have enough data for a time series plot. All he had was imports and exports from different countries and he wanted to display the information in a way that would help his book sell. Here it is, the first bar chart. It shows imports and exports to and from Scotland by country.

This was such a new concept that Playfair had to provide instructions on how to read it.

Playfair's landmark book was "The Statistical Breviary, Shewing on a Principle Entirely New, The Resources of Every State and Kingdom in Europe, Illustrated with Stained Copper-Plate Charts Representing the Physical Powers of Each Distinct Nation with Ease and Perspicuity", which was a statistical economic review of Europe. This book had what may be the first pie chart.

This chart shows how much of the Turkish Empire was geographically European and how much African. Playfair repeated the same type of visualization in 1805's "Statistical Account of the United States of America", but this time in color:

He was an early pioneer of line charts too, as this famous economic chart of England's balance of payments deficits and surpluses shows (again, from 1786's "Commercial and Political Atlas").

Playfair on TV

To my knowledge, there's never been a TV depiction of Playfair, which seems a shame. His life has most of the ingredients for a costume drama mini-series.  There would be British Lords and Ladies in period costumes, French aristocrats in all their finery, political intrigue and terror, the guillotine, espionage, fraud on an epic scale (even allowing George Washington to make an appearance), counterfeiting, stream engines and rolling mills (as things to be sold and as things to make counterfeit money), prison, and of course, writing. It could be a kind of Bridgerton for nerds.

Reading more

Surprisingly, William Playfair is a bit niche and there's not that much about him and his works.

The best source of information is "PLAYFAIR: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World" by Bruce Berkowitz. The book digs into Playfair's wild history and is the best source of information on the Scioto Company scandal and counterfeiting.

Here are some other sources you might find useful (note that most of them reference Bruce Berkowitz's book).

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Coronation and visions of the future

The 1950s version of the future

I watched the Coronation last weekend and it reminded me of some childhood experiences I had in Britain. I remember finding and reading old books from around the time of the previous Coronation that talked about the future. I read these books decades after they were published and it was obvious their predictions were way off course. The books I read were from a British perspective, which was similar in some ways to the American vision, but more black and white.

Hovercraft everywhere

Hovercraft are a British invention and first saw use in the UK in the late 1950s. Of course, the books all had (black and white) photos of hovercraft racing across the waves. The prose was breathless and it was plain the authors felt the future was both air-cushioned and British-led. Uniformly, the authors predicted widespread and worldwide adoption. 

(The National Archives UK, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the time I read these books, the problems of hovercraft were becoming apparent; hovercraft as a commercial means of travel were in full retreat. Some of the limitations of hovercraft were well-known in the late 1950s, but none of the books mentioned them, and even as a child, I felt disappointed in the writers' naive optimism. 


In the future, if we weren't traveling in hovercraft, then we were traveling in cars; no one ever seems to use public transport of any kind. There didn't seem to be a British version of a future car, it all seemed to have been imported from America, including the images. Maybe the writers were already justly cynical about the future of the British car industry.

The Conquest of Space

All the books forecasted a space-faring future and all of them had people living on the moon and in space by the year 2000. In this case, the vision wasn't imported, there was a definite British spin on the space future and the images were home-grown too. There was a belief that Britain would have its own space program, including lunar settlements, space stations, and solar system exploration. All the text and images assumed that these would be British missions; other countries might have programs too, but Britain would have its own, independent, space activities.

The home

Like American versions of the future, British versions of the future were deeply conservative. The family would be a husband and wife and two children, with very traditional gender roles. The husband would travel to work in his futuristic car, the wife would prepare meals in a futuristic kitchen, and the children would play board games in front of a giant TV screen. The kitchen was full of futuristic gadgets to prepare meals in minutes, but the interfaces for these gadgets were always knobs, dials, and switches, and they were always metal with an enamel finish, no plastics in the future. The TV doubled as a videophone and there were illustrations of the family talking to their relatives in one of the white British ex-colonies.

The future clothes were largely 1950s clothes, the "clothing is silver in the future" idea was a cliche even then.

Society and politics

Oddly, there were very few predictions about society changing and the writers all missed what should have been obvious trends.

Immigration into the UK had happened for centuries with group after group arriving and settling. If the waves of immigration were large enough, they had an impact on British culture, including food. All of the writers seemed to assume that there would be no mass immigration and no changes in diet as a result (in the future, everyone ate 1950s food). Although it would be hard to guess what the immigrant groups would be, it should have been obvious that there would be immigration and that it would change Britain. This is an unforgivable miss and shows the futurists were naive. 

None of the writers really dealt with the ongoing consequences of the end of Empire. After independence, many countries continued to do business with Britain, but as colonial ties weakened, they started to do business elsewhere, and as a result, British exports dropped and so did employment. The writers had a sunny optimism that things would continue as before. None of them predicted that the ex-colonies could rise and challenge Britain in any way. The same assumption of British superiority ran through the writing.

Of course, the main assumption behind all of the writing, including the fiction, was that the future was heterosexual, middle-class, and white. The class system was very much intact and very much in its 1950s form. People knew their place and the social hierarchy was solid. Even as a child, I thought this was a suffocating view of the future.

Fiction: Arthur C. Clarke and Dan Dare

I have mixed feelings about the British science fiction of the time. It was naively optimistic, but that was part of its charm and appeal.

The leading science fiction comic strip was "Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future", about a future British space pilot who had adventures battling nefarious aliens across the galaxy. Dan was always the good guy and the aliens were always bad, once again, very black and white. Dan's role was to preserve order for humanity (or Britain). It was Britain as a galactic policeman and force for good. Even today, Dan Dare has a following.

Arthur C. Clarke produced a lot of fiction that was very rooted in British culture of the time and once again was very conservative about society. However, he was sunnily optimistic that somehow things would work out for the best. Ingenuity and bravery would always save the day. 

Optimism and conservatism

The two threads running through the different books I read were optimism and conservatism. The optimism was naive but exciting; the authors all believed the future would be a much better place. The conservatism was constraining though and meant they missed big changes they should have seen.

Perhaps optimism and conservatism were a reflection of the times; Britain was still a global power with interests around the world, it had just emerged victorious from World War II but paid a heavy price. The writers were living in a country that was in a relatively strong position relative to others, even other European nations. The rise of Japan and South Korea was still in the future and China was just emerging from its civil war. Maybe British people wanted to believe in a utopian British future and were willing to buy and keep optimistic books that told them comforting things.

What it says

Everyone is wrong about the future, but how they're wrong tells us something about the attitudes and beliefs of the time. These British books of the 1950s forecasted a technologically advanced world with Britain at its core; the world they painted was one where 1950s British values and cultural norms would remain globally dominant. It almost feels as if the writers deliberately built a future in which those values could triumph. 

And what of today?

There's a new King and there will be new books forecasting the future. There's plenty written now about how technology may advance and more writing on how society may change. The difference from the 1950s is the lack of consensus on what society's future may be. I see two opposite trends in fiction and in futurology: pessimism and optimism.

The fiction of choice for pessimism is dystopian. The world as we know it comes to an end through war or zombies or a virus, leaving people fighting for survival. The dominant themes are self-reliance and distrust of strangers; people who are different from you are the enemy.

The fiction of choice for optimism is Star Trek or Dr. Who. The future is fundamentally a decent place with the occasional existential crisis. People work together and strangers are mostly good people who could be your friends. 

Perhaps this split says a lot about today's society. We create futures where the values we believe in can thrive.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Coworking spaces: the challenge for company loyalty

Coworking spaces are something new

Over the last year, I've spent a couple of weeks working in coworking spaces in London and New York. After spending the last week at a coworking space, I've come away thinking that these spaces represent a profound change for workers and a challenge to how companies relate to their remote staff.  

Of course, the rental office space market isn't new; it goes back decades in different countries around the world. What is new is the price, flexibility, and type of workspace. The lowest price tier offers you space in an open-plan office with good wifi, coffee, and maybe other facilities thrown in. The low price, high density, and open-plan nature of the office are what's driving the change.

(A coworking space.)

My experiences

Three things stood out for me in my coworking experience: diversity, energy, and business focus.

I was surprised at the diversity of people I met, they were a much more diverse crowd than any company I've been a part of. By diversity, I mean many things. Obviously, racial and national origin diversity; the people I met were from many different countries with a range of racial backgrounds. But also job roles, I met artists, digital marketers, sales reps, planners, and more. The stereotype is that coworking spaces are full of coders, but that hasn't been my experience. The types of business were wildly different too, everything from infrastructure to car leasing, to contract marketing, to diversity hiring. I heard some really engaging stories that have caused me to think, more so than happens from day-to-day outside of coworking spaces.

The energy was high at all times. Everyone seemed to have a sense of purpose and focus on what they were doing plus the drive to work at it. That's probably a selection bias as these spaces tend to be full of young companies and people working for themselves, but even so, it was good to experience.

Despite the wide range of businesses, everyone was focused on their customers and what they need to do to sell to them. Everyone was keenly aware of the need to make money and the mantra "everyone is in sales" seemed very true for them.

Notably, not all career stages and ages were equally represented. I saw very few people at the start of their careers, the youngest tended to be a few years out of college and on their second or third job. At the other end, I saw very few people who looked to be in their 50s and no one who looked close to retirement. On the whole, people tended to be late 20s or early 30s.

Where things get interesting are the events and services these coworking spaces provide. Many spaces offer a barista and some serve beer and wine after 5pm. I've seen wine tastings and other social events. Some places have one-off business services like professional headshots and so on. These are exactly the types of services and events companies offer to their on-site staff, and this is where the challenge comes.

The coworking challenge

All companies try to promote loyalty, which requires staff proximity and communication. Loyalty helps with productivity, goal alignment, and stability; a loyal workforce will stay with a company during tough times. Social programs, 1:1 meetings, and group meetings all help with proximity, and newsletters and Slack, etc. help with communications, but these things are much harder with a remote workforce. 

Look at what happens in a coworking space. You get proximity because others share the space with you and the coworking space runs social events to encourage mixing (and loyalty). You get communications too, many coworking spaces send out email newsletters, and so on.

Now imagine you're a remote employee working out of a coworking space. Imagine it's 3pm on a Thursday and your company is running a social event over Zoom. At the same time, your coworking space is offering an in-person social event with all the people you meet every day in the office with beer and wine. Which event would you go to?

What about lunches? Some companies offer to pay for remote employees' lunches on special occasions, but the employee has to order their lunch and submit an expense claim (effort). By contrast, if a coworking space offers a free lunch, all the employee has to do is turn up and eat. Which would you prefer?

As a remote employee, would you be more loyal to your coworking space or your employer?

What this means

There is a form of loyalty competition between the company a worker works for and the coworking space the worker uses. The coworking space has the upper hand in the way the loyalty game is mostly played today. But there are other ways to generate loyalty, for example, promotions and pay rises, training and staff development, conferences, and so on; things which add lasting value to an employee.

Companies need to realize that the remote experience is different, especially if someone is in a coworking space. If companies want loyal staff, they have to offer something meaningful because coworking spaces are using loyalty levers too and they have the decisive physical advantage.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

You can be too clever with visualizations

Front page of the paper

I saw this visualization on Friday, April 14th 2023, on the front page of the New York Times. It was an illustration for an article about increasing the use of electricity to tackle climate change in the United States. Unfortunately, the visualization is at best confusing. You can read the full article here:

(New York Times 14th April, 2023)

The message

The message the article was trying to convey was a simple one: it was a modeling exercise for a more electrified US with lower energy consumption. The animations in the article made clear where electricity use would need to grow and roughly by how much.

Why the presentation is bad

The visualization is a sort of pie chart. In most cases, pie charts are very bad data visualizations, and this article compounds the problem by using a non-standard form. 

Just looking at the charts, can you tell me what the percentages are for Transportation, Industrial, etc. now and in the "electrified future"? Can you tell me what's growing?

The article makes plain the modeling work is for reduced energy consumption. Looking at the two charts, can you tell me what the reduction is and over what timescale it occurs?

I could go on, but it's easy to see for yourself what's wrong. Look at the charts and tell me what you take away from them.

The article contains animations that make the message clearer, but even so, it took me a lot of work to figure out what was going on. This takes us to the major visualization sin here: the level of effort to understand what's going on is too high.

What's the takeaway?

You can get too clever with visualizations. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Keep things simple and easy to understand.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

I'm curious if you want to buy from me

Over the last few months, I’ve been getting sales prospecting emails that all have the same keyword: “curious”. Here are a few (anonymized) examples:

…and was curious to learn more about your…

…but curious what time to action looks like…

Just curious to check on my previous email …

…but curious if you have any thoughts on the above…

I'm curious if you run into challenges maintaining…

I was curious to learn about your current…

I am curious to see if you are looking…

(A curious cat - Dimitri Houtteman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I ignore all these emails. Why? Because they’re poor prospecting.

Here’s the reality. These emails are being sent by BDRs or SDRs and they’re prospecting for business. This is a fine, even noble thing to do. But the sender isn’t curious and they’re not interested in my views; the sender wants to know if I’m a prospect. 

These are poor prospecting emails for several reasons. First off, the word “curious” is now a tip-off that the email is prospecting and so destined for quick deletion (I rarely get passed the word curious). Secondly, my email provider is getting smarter and it’s now diverting “curious” emails to my spam folder, I found half of these examples there. Unfortunately for the senders, “curious” is a relatively uncommon word so spam filters easily learn to filter it out.

I’m very busy. I don’t have time to read through a long prospecting email. If the first word I come across is a trigger (e.g., “curious”) I delete the email. The prospecting emails I read are ones that address a real business issue and get to the point quickly. Some really good prospecting emails have mentioned good quality case studies I’m interested in and made it easy for me to read them (I’m not filling in a long registration form and I’m not giving you my phone number).

(There seems to be a broken selling model here. I don't have time to meet with every salesperson who contacts me. You need to establish value first. So provide me with a low-effort way to see if I'm interested then let's escalate commitment. It's a bit like a romantic relationship; very few people get married after a first date.)

I’m sure there must be a BDR or SDR course out there that tells people to use words like “curious” or “interested”. Perhaps in the past, it may even have worked. I’m not convinced it does now. It’s time to move on.

Friday, March 31, 2023

How to improve your business writing

The need for better business writing

Let's face it, a lot of business writing is just bad; you wouldn't read it if you didn't have to. You're left wondering whether the person who wrote it hated writing it as much as you hated reading it.

The problems are well-known: turgid prose, needless complexity, cryptic meanings, pseudo-academic obscurity, and so on.

Annoyingly, books on business writing aren't much help for improving business writing. They explain the difference between an abstract and an introduction and they talk about the need for structure, but that's about it. Style guides are of little use too; they give you advice on how to abbreviate American states but don't help you make your reports readable.

A better type of writing

But business writing doesn't have to be like this. What if I told you there was a style of writing that people:

  • voluntarily read 
  • described as "sparkling", "insightful", or "game-changing" 
  • won Nobel prizes for.

Wouldn't you want to know what it was?

Of course, I'm talking about fiction writing.

Before you object, let me tell you something: fiction writers do a lot of things that business writers should do. They do it so well, they make a living from it. 

Fiction writing basics

Let's look at the basics of what fiction writers do.

Write for their audience. Most, if not all writers know who their target audience is and what they want. Thriller writers, literary fiction writers, and romance writers tailor their writing for the people who buy their books. If they don't, they won't get published and won't get paid. The first lesson for business writers: know your audience and what they want to hear.

Have a good story to tell. No one likes a boring story. Some fiction writers can take a dull situation and turn it into something amazing through insight and storytelling; they can make the ordinary exciting. The second lesson for business writers is: tell your audience an engaging story.

Organize your story. Lots of business writing books tell you about paragraphs and structure, but fiction writing books go much further. There are all kinds of narrative structures available to you; you can tell a story in reverse chronological order, from different character perspectives, with different-length chapters, and so on. Of course, there's also the choice of point of view. Stories don't have to follow a linear time narrative and your business report doesn't have to be linear either. The third lesson for business writers is: use the appropriate organization to tell your story.

Use appropriate language. This is the part I'm saddest about. Fiction writers use all kinds of ways to make their stories engaging:

  • using the active voice rather than the passive voice
  • sentence length
    • use shorter sentences for action and longer sentences for thought
    • vary sentence length for variety
  • avoid using adverbs (Stephen King!)
  • use simple words rather than complex ones (unless the complex word makes a particular point)
  • remove unnecessary words
  • use alliteration, anaphora, tricolon, and other rhetorical techniques
  • ...and so on.

What was the last report that made you think? What was the last report that made you feel anything at all? What was the last report that used alliteration, anaphora, and tricolon crescens to persuade you? The fourth lesson for business writers is: be artful about the language you use to tell your story. 

What to read next

There are a lot of great books on writing fiction. Here are just a few I recommend.

  • Stephen King, On writing.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. Steering the craft.

Ian Fleming wrote about writing. What he said has aged badly in many places, but his underlying message is clear: he wrote for his audience and he thought deeply about what they wanted. Here's the piece.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Is it OK to lie in business for the right reason?

Can lying in business be OK?

A long time ago I was in a very difficult ethical position. The best thing to do for the business was to lie and mislead technical executive management, but it didn't sit right with me. My boss was more flexible, he did the misleading for me, and the result was the executives made the right decision. Listen to my story and tell me what you think was the right thing to do.

The situation

My company has previously bought exclusively from supplier X, but supplier X was having financial difficulties and had stopped innovating; their products were extremely expensive relative to the market. My company had just spent a large amount of money with X and our technical executive management was very committed to them, it was very apparent we were an "X shop". At the same time, the technology had changed and new entrants had come to the market offering faster and cheaper products. 

My team needed new hardware to generate network traffic. We tried the solution from X, but it just didn't give us anything like the performance we needed and was extremely expensive. We then tried a product from one of the new entrants which gave us the performance we needed (and more) and was much cheaper. In fact, performance was 10x faster and we had the test results to prove it. So my team wanted to buy from the new entrant.

The dilemma

My manager told me that if we told the truth that the new entrant was 10x faster than X and much cheaper, technical executive management wouldn't believe us and we would lose credibility, in fact, it's likely we would be told to go with technology from X even though it wasn't good enough. 

I wanted to educate technical executive management and show them what we'd found. My boss said that was a bad idea and we should spin a story technical executive management could accept.

What should we do?

What happened

My boss took the results and did some massaging. He told the technical executive team that while the new entrant wasn't as fast as company X, it was a lot cheaper and was a better fit for this particular project - he implied it would be a sacrifice for the team to go with the new entrant, but we would do it to save money. He reassured executive management that their prior decision to go with X was sound because the other projects were different. He presented a version of the results that hinted we needed more equipment from the new entrant than we would need from X, but it would still be cheaper overall.

We got permission to go with the new entrant. My boss told me that technical executive management had commented that the new entrant had really come a long way and that maybe in five years they would be as good as X.

Subsequent events

Within a year, supplier X hit bigger financial problems and was taken over. It stopped producing networking equipment completely. My employer moved off their hardware within two years and exclusively bought equipment from new market entrants. 

The story in the specialized press was that X had offered inferior and over-priced products for some time. When new entrants came into the market with faster and cheaper technology, X couldn't compete. X had been reliant on inertia and existing business relationships for sales, but of course, that came to an end eventually.

Technical executive management talked about how their decision to go with the new entrant for my project showed they were on top of things. However, company C-level leadership had changed and they wanted better technical decision-making, so the entirety of the technical executive management team changed. However, I was long gone by this point.

Sunk cost fallacy

This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy where people remain committed to something because of the amount of effort they've previously put into it, even though going with something new would be better. There are numerous examples in business and politics. 

In this case, technical executive management had invested a lot in supplier X, including their own credibility. Because of that investment, they weren't going to change suppliers easily, even though they "should".

Unfortunately, I've seen other examples of the sunk cost fallacy over the years, but never anything as bad as this. Organizational inertia is a real thing and it can be gut-wrenching to make changes. Sadly, the heralds of change are often punished and end up leaving because their message is uncomfortable; the nail that sticks up is the one that's hammered down.

What's the right thing to do?

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that my boss made the right call in the circumstances. Yes, technical executive management was wrong, but they were deep into the sunk cost fallacy and weren't thinking rationally. There was no way they would have accepted our results, even though they were true. They needed a rationale that would enable them to cling to X while giving us permission to do something new, and my boss gave it to them. The best possible solution for the company was for technical executive management to realize how the market had shifted and change their buying behavior, but they just weren't ready to do so and it would have been career suicide for us to try.

Ultimately, it's not about doing what's right, it's about making the change you can.

What do you think?