A Ruffian Sampler
What have you let yourself in for?
A Ruffian reader on the roof outside a bedsit in Pimlico, London, in the 1930s. It’s called ‘Attic Window’ by Noel Kilgour, via Richard Morris, an art historian who brings a little beauty to Twitter every day.
When this lands in your in-box I’ll be on my way to the U.S. to give talks on curiosity and productive conflict (if you’d like me to give a talk wherever you work, hit me up).
I wasn’t going to drop a new edition on you this weekend but given that so many new followers have joined recently, it would be remiss not to say hello. HELLO. I also thought I’d provide a fuller introduction to the Ruffian than you get in the standard ‘new joiner’ email.
Newsletter writers are always being advised to specialise - to be crystal clear about their marketable proposition. But I’ve always found it hard to say what the Ruffian is about. Its virtue, or its fatal flaw, depending on how you look at it, is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. That’s because I never quite know what I’m going to write. I’m interested in everything, so it can be about anything. Having said that, there are some recurring subject areas and themes. The subject areas include politics, culture, communication, cognitive science, music (I know that many of you signed up after reading my recent piece on Paul McCartney’s memory). Recurring themes include arguments (good and bad), social influence, decision-making, and the relationship between intelligence and stupidity.
I often write about what’s in the news during the previous week but other times I’ll take off in a completely unrelated direction. The content is irregular and so is the schedule to some extent, although the Ruffian usually arrives on a Saturday morning. The format varies a bit too. Most often there’s a longer opinion-led piece followed by notes on other stories and a selection of links to stuff I’ve enjoyed, laughed or swooned at or just found fascinating (for some people these links are at the heart of the Ruffian experience.)
In short, the Ruffian is many things; I just hope it’s never boring.
Some of the Ruffian is behind a paywall, which is what enables me to keep this thing going. I’d urge you to take the paid option if you can afford it. It pays for my time, and it also allows you to access some of the best material.
Who reads the Ruffian? The readership is as eclectic as the content. Many of you do great things in business, academia, journalism, politics and policy. Overall, Ruffian readers are exceptionally smart, curious, knowledgeable and thoughtful, which raises the bar for what I write. The comment section invariably includes well-made points I hadn’t already thought about. Most readers are from the UK but a good proportion are from the US, Europe, India and elsewhere around the world. When I dwell on British politics, I try to make it intelligible to outsiders (not always easy, to be honest) and to draw universally applicable lessons.
If anything pulls these disparate materials together into something approaching a coherent product, it’s tone of voice. In a world of screamingly hot takes I try to offer the balms of cool reason and good humour. I am wary of the word ‘nuance’, since what I say is not always achingly subtle and qualified - sometimes things really are that simple. But I rarely shout. I don’t expect you to always agree with what I say, but I always try and give you something to think about. I’m also an optimist by nature, to a fault, and a believer that most people are basically good (even the people I give a hard time to). Given the crotchety temper of the times, that’s probably the closest The Ruffian gets to a unique selling point.
But the best way to get an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for is to sample this selection of The Ruffian’s greatest hits (or at least, some of my favourites) from the last couple of years. Take a few dips and you’ll soon get the hang of it. Maybe you can do a better job of describing it than I can.
So, in mostly chronological order…
Tough Talk (as an example of the editions which are mainly about the mix of links)
How To Think Bayes (a non-technical introduction to Bayesianism, and how it shapes my thinking)
Elite Wars (my take on the Sewell Report on racism)
How To Stay Calm In a Storm (why and how organisations should prepare for social media pile-ons)
Angels, Demons and Videotape (on the Central Park birder and a problem for modern journalism)
MLK Syndrome (why people love to pretend they’re participating in grand moral battles)
Supernatural (talent vs genius)
In Praise of Sheeple (when mindlessly following others is good)
The Battle of Bamber Bridge (an excursion into WWII history: when American racism met English villagers)
Under Pressure (why we hate actually thinking about sex and gender)
Othering the West (the prejudices that non-Westerners hold about the West and how they led Putin astray)
Nine Ways To Read (ideas for reading more books!)
How To Be Influenced (what we can learn from artists about taking control of our influences)
Thinking vs Doing (on the science of decision-making)
Marginal Stupidity (why clever people make stupid decisions)
Oof - that’s more than I thought I was going to list and I had to leave out quite a lot of good stuff. For instance, I haven’t included any of the FLASHPOINTS series of interviews (a new one is due to drop soon and I’ll do a recap then, in the meantime here’s a sample: Teresa Bejan on free speech). You know, I really do think The Ruffian is value for money. Speaking of which…
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