Discover more from The Ruffian
Did you think I'd lay down and die?
This week: how to make the most of setbacks, why plastic might not be evil after all, and how to calculate the circumference of the earth.
In my last New Statesman column I talked about how popular culture strike an elusive balance the familiar with the new. In the movie industry, the Marvel franchise has walked that tightrope very skilfully indeed; it's the biggest Hollywood success story of the last ten years. This fascinating HBR article sets out to analyse how they did it. The authors identify four principles underpinning Marvel's success. For instance, Marvel Studios have consistently hired outsiders - people without experience of making superhero movies - and joined them up with a stable core of experts. And although they follow creative formulas they're always trying to mess with them, generating variation within constraints. They stimulate "customer curiosity" (obviously something of particular interest to me) by inviting viewers to participate in rich, finely detailed worlds, beyond the movie itself. I've noticed that while Hollywood has got better at leveraging its branded assets, brands themselves have got worse at it, neglecting to cultivate consistent icons or associations because they're so obsessed with chasing the last click. Marketers should be studying Iron Man, Hulk and Thor.
I've written a piece for BBC Capital which actually started life as a Ruffian post. It's about how elite athletes and other high achievers turn painful setbacks into success.
In previous Ruffians I've highlighted the amazing progress the UK is making at weaning itself off fossil fuels (update on coal here), an achievement that goes unacknowledged because it doesn't fit the narrative that nothing is getting done on climate change. One of the biggest plot twists of recent years has been the emergence of plastic as environmental enemy number one, so I was interested to read this excellent article explaining why it may not be the problem it seems to be. Plastic's environmental costs of production are very low and we have an efficient way of disposing of it, in landfill (and we're not running out of landfill). The pollution of the oceans isn't down to the UK or the US, it's down to East Asian countries dumping garbage in the sea, and that is partly because we in the West have gone overboard (pardon the pun) on recycling. For more on the latter in particular, listen to this wonderful two-part podcast from Planet Money. The first half is a mind-blowing story about the origin of recycling; the second explores the arguments over whether recycling is good or bad for the environment (whatever you think about all this, you just have to listen to these pods, they're exceptionally good). Oh and you can read about why tote bags are probably worse for the environment than plastic bags here (beware the x7000 re-use figure, but the overall point is valid). As this Economist piece points out, plastic cuts down on organic waste by keeping food fresh for longer. We love single culprits and simple solutions, but environmental problems are multi-causal; part of complex systems in which everything we do has trade-offs and unexpected consequences. Whether or not you use tote bags, it's important to be reminded of that principle from time to time.
If you've been enjoying The Ruffian, please spread the word to your networks, real and virtual; I can only build an audience through you. Speaking of which, if you joined in the last week - and quite a few of you did - I'd love to hear how you found about The Ruffian. Hit 'reply' and drop me a note.
DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK
After a longer break than usual, Polarised - the podcast I co-host with Matthew Taylor of the RSA - is back. In this edition Matthew and get stuck into the current political scene, starting with Theresa May's valedictory speech, before moving on to what Donald Trump is up to, and what Boris Johnson will do in his first three months.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about Doug Lemov, who trains teachers in classroom techniques. I was struck by how the internet has facilitated a culture of collaborative self-improvement in the teaching profession. Teachers from far-apart schools share ideas on classroom practice, swap findings from cognitive science, and argue vociferously about theories of learning. It's a lively and healthy ecosphere - though apparently some older teachers find it all a bit tiresome. I loved this eloquent Twitter rant from a headteacher, Catherine Hewitt, who is fed up with being told by teaching veterans that there's nothing new under the sun (btw the book she refers to, by Tom Sherrington, is here). There have always been great teachers, of course, but the teaching profession is now developing a vocabulary for how effective teaching works, and debating best practices rather than just relying on intuition and habit. That's making them better, faster. Catherine says, "The teachers I work with are better at teaching in 2 years than I was in 5."
WHAT TO DO ABOUT TRUMP
Neera Tanden says it all in one tweet.
WHAT THE MSM WON'T TELL YOU
People say the mainstream media has a bias towards the left or right but its biggest biases are towards "things that happened yesterday" and "bad things", and away from "long-term" and "good". A new UNESCO report says that in just ten years - between 2006 and 2016 - 270 million Indians emerged from poverty. In the same period, India, Ethiopia and Peru achieved significant improvements in nutrition, sanitation, child mortality, schooling, drinking water and housing. That's more important than almost anything we read in the press this week.
Last Sunday was an epic sports day. Though the cricket attracted most press coverage, the Wimbledon final had more viewers (though I'm sure many were double or triple-screening, with the British Grand Prix on too). I watched the tennis. I don't play, but I find it an incredibly compelling sport to watch, a mix of sword-fighting, chess and ballet. I've read several excellent pieces on Federer's loss and Djokovich's jaw-dropping feat of mental durability. Here are my two favourites: first, Brian Phillips, an unfairly gifted writer, focuses on Djokovic's psychology - on how he really wants to be liked, but he knows the public don't like him much, his triumph being that he has somehow transformed that painful knowledge into an invincible will to win. Then there's this blog post by the sportswriter Joe Posnanski on why the big three - Federer, Nadal, Djoko - should really be considered as one.
DEPT. OF GREAT EXPLAINERS
Some time in in the third century BC, a man called Eratosthenes was crazy enough think he could calculate the earth's circumference without leaving Alexandria. Even crazier, he got it nearly right. In this short clip, Carl Sagan explains how he did it.