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I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
This week: why incompetence can be an advantage, what London looks like to outsiders, and the strange story of John Lennon's guitar.
THE INCOMPETENCE PREMIUM
This week, I watched the candidates to be our next prime minister take part in what might have been the most miserably vacuous, dishonest TV debate I've ever seen, and the bar is low. The next day, a senior member of the Labour Party tweeted out a private message to a journalist by mistake, and then, to cover it up, he pretended his account had been hacked. Meanwhile Chris Grayling is transport secretary and Richard Burgon is shadowing Justice. We may have had worse politicians in the past but I don't think they've ever been so consistently incompetent, as a class. I can think of several possible reasons for this, but one of them is that, in both main parties, it has become an advantage to be openly incompetent. It makes you more likely to get or keep a job. Corbyn and May value loyalty over competence, and if you show too much competence, you're suspected of disloyalty. Johnson will no doubt be the same. It's certainly Trump's modus operandi (hence Ben Carson and Rick Perry). There is a great passage in Codes of the Underworld, a study of the mafia by the sociologist Diego Gambetta, in which he tries to explain why so many gangsters are incompetent. He calls incompetence is a "constraint on defection" and therefore useful for a boss to cultivate; an incompetent appointee is more likely to be subservient because he lacks better alternatives. Sixteenth century kings needed counselors who were capable, but the more capable they were, the more they endangered themselves (yes, I'm looking forward to the final book of Wolf Hall). In corrupt politics, says Gambetta, being serious about issues of policy or principle is dangerous because it "signals that one plans to acquire a following in other than corrupt ways." Our politics is not corrupt in the Italian style, but it has become intellectually corrupt; anyone who threatens to be a source of groundbreaking ideas or feasible solutions is ruling themselves out of promotion.
As of this week my New Statesman column will be more frequent (twice a week instead of once a month), and I'll be ranging beyond digital culture to cover...well, whatever I think is interesting. First piece in this spirit is about why the problem with politics today is not populism but "simplism".
THE HAPPINESS ERROR
Regular readers of The Ruffian will know that I'm interested in why our default assumption is that everyone is miserable, when surveys of happiness show that it has been rising for decades in many developed nations, including and especially the UK. Well, this seems to be a universal error. In every country, the average estimate of happiness is far lower than actual reported happiness. (It's reasonable, by the way, to ask questions about happiness data and how meaningful it is, but it's inexcusable to ignore it altogether just because it doesn't fit certain preconceptions).
BIG CITY LIFE
I follow Devon Zuegel on Twitter. She's an American software developer and a committed urbanist with many interesting things to say about how cities work. She also writes really well. These are her field notes on London, which she visited for the first time last year. I think they're wonderfully perceptive. It's so interesting to get an intelligent outsider perspective on a city you think you know well. Yes, she gets things wrong but that's kind of not the point. Read the others in the series too. I would really like a publisher to commission Devon to write a kind of meta-travel guide, on how to explore a new city: what to look for, how to prioritise your time to get the most value out a trip, how to find interest in what seem like boring things. Cities are rich, dense texts, which can be quite hard to read unless you know how. Devon is an expert reader.
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I have two podcast recommendations, both to do with creative endeavours. The first is a Sodajerker interview with Sting about songwriting. I like Sting. He's a working-class auto-didact. He is pretentious in the best possible way, endlessly experimental, unbothered by whether you think he's cool or not or what will or won't sell; in interviews funnier and more self-aware than most of his critics. Most importantly he's given us a lot of indelibly brilliant songs. In this interview he talks about composing some of them, while he strums on an acoustic guitar, and it's utterly fascinating. I particularly liked his discussion of Every Breath You Take, which he wrote in Ian Fleming's house in Jamaica. Sting thinks that the song is imbued with the spirit of James Bond - you'll have to listen to find out why. But hey maybe you're a Sting-hater, in which case try this excellent interview with Brian Koppelman, creator of the Showtime series Billions, on writing and showrunning, money and power. One of the things he thinks more people should know, he says - something he learned early on - is how to talk to powerful people in a way that makes them listen to you.
In 2015 the acoustic guitar that John Lennon played on I Want To Hold Your Hand and many other Beatles tracks was sold for $2.41 million at auction. The seller was a man called John McCaw, a San Diego resident who bought the guitar in 1969 for $175 and had no idea it used to be Lennon's, until 2014. The story of how McCaw discovered what he had is a good one (further background here.)
LOVE ON FIRE
This interview with Courtney Love is just glorious. I hope a publisher is throwing money at her to write a memoir, because she's a fantastic storyteller (the Liz Taylor stories!), and very funny.
The computer which guided the Apollo mission to the moon had 0.000002% of the computing capacity of an iPhone. On the same subject, Oliver Morton's book looks brilliant.