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This week: why caring is bad for thinking, why Twitter can't grow, and why writers write.
I CARE THEREFORE I'M RIGHT
Study: the more we care about something, the more likely we are to present bad arguments for it, without realising they are bad. We confuse our passion for an issue with our ability to reason about it. This connects to something I often return to: the fundamental tension, in politics, between experts and actors. People who grasp the details of policy and some experience of it tend to be less 'passionate' and less partisan. Most people who have spent time in government will tell you that 80% of the problems are the same no matter who is in power. If you know much less about governing and policy, it's much easier to feel certainty about the right solutions. So you're more likely to get passionate, outraged - and to act, to campaign, to speak out. The thing is, you need both - too many experts and you end up with an inhuman technocracy resistant to change (see the Home Office - an incompetent technocracy is the worst). Too little expertise and you get blowhard populists driving the bus off the cliff.
BENDING THE CURVE
I found this long, detailed assessment of the business strategies of tech giants to be really interesting. Your mileage may vary, though it helps that the author, Eugene Wei, who is a former Amazon employee, writes very well. His post is about how fast-growing businesses get to a point where some factor or other becomes a roadblock that threatens to flatten the growth curve forever unless it can get solved. In the case of Amazon, the roadblock was that people hated paying shipping fees - really, really hated it. At one point it seemed like that might be an insurmountable issue but they ended up solving it with Amazon Prime. The section on Twitter is really interesting. I've noticed that Twitter's problem is that its regular users want something different to its light users, and as it tries to grow by adding more users it is making adjustments that piss off its regular users. For instance, the messing around with the timeline is designed to make it easier for new or occasional users to see what they've missed. If you're a heavy user it's just annoying because you see the same stuff again and it's out of sync with the moment. Wei argues Twitter has probably reached the limits of its natural universe of infovores, and trying to expand it further is pointless.
SMITH ON ROTH
The opening quote in David Remnick's piece on Philip Roth is from Kafka: "The meaning of life is that it stops". Silicon Valley billionaires are funding efforts to achieve immortality, but life without a hard stop would be meaningless - and what kind of life is that? Anyway, back to Roth. Remnick's piece is as good as you'd expect. One thing it brought home to me was how much of Roth's achievement was down to his ability to focus. It's not that he was much more talented than some of his peers, it's that he made the most of his talent. That late career surge, during which he wrote most of his greatest work, was the result of a conscious decision to forego the pleasures and distractions of life itself and just lock himself way upstate and write. He did that until he felt he had completed his body of work, and then he got out (like Zidane at Real). In his final years, he moved back to the city, and back to life: reading, music, friends. This short tribute to Roth, from Zadie Smith, who got to know him during that coda, is so beautifully written, so tender, so true about what literature is and isn't for - and just about being alive - that I was on the verge of tears by the end of it.
TO THE STARS
I'm going to be singing in this concert at the Barbican on Monday 11 June (I'm a member of the London Concert Choir). While I don't usually do this, I think you should come along if you can. The concert is in honour of the RAF, and any profits go to charity. There are some great British pieces and the climax of the evening is a new one. Roderick Williams is better known as one of our greatest singers. He's also a composer, and he has created a gorgeous setting of poems from World War II fighter pilots, which are full of wonder and pathos and dark humour. There will be three choirs, a string orchestra, the RAF band, an organist, readings from Martin Shaw and Sophie Raworth, and the sounds of Spitfires and Hurricanes. It will be a spectacular night.
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