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In this week's Lockdown Ruffian: the search for a vaccine, the bluffing epidemic, the Sunak ascendancy, and a playlist to wash your worries away.
This fascinating account of the search for a C-19 vaccine, by Samanth Subramanian, is the single best piece of science writing I've read on the pandemic. I've written long articles on science I know how hard it is to get right and how long it takes me, so I'm kind of in awe of how Samanth turned around a piece of this quality and depth in such a short period. Three big takeouts: one, that the science of vaccines has taken a big leap forward in recent years, greatly foreshortening the time it takes to get to candidate vaccines. Two, that finding a C-19 vaccine will still take at least a year because what you can't foreshorten is the trial stage - you can't speed up human biology. Scientists and governments need to avoid at all costs distributing a vaccine that turns out to be harmful, which has happened in the past. (A treatment may arrive sooner). Three, that this crisis will see us take another leap forward because we'll get so much learning from using the new techniques (and presumably governments will ramp up funding of this research). So at least we'll be better prepared for the next one. (I found this explainer on immune systems useful to read alongside.)
THE BLUFFING EPIDEMIC
My latest New Statesman column was inspired by the many non-experts who have expressed confident opinions about pandemic management on the basis of looking at few charts and reading a Medium post (yeah I'm sure you're right and epidemiologists with decades of learning are wrong). More broadly it's about how smart, educated people often lack the ability to be "meta-rational"; to be aware of and acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge. Subsequent to writing it I came across this absolutely priceless example - do read the whole thing.
MAN OF THE HOUR
Rishi Sunak has had a good crisis. I can't think of another politician who has gone from relative obscurity to favourite for next PM in such a short time. When he took over from Javid, commentators portrayed him as someone who was there to do Boris Johnson's bidding. His inexperience was cited, as was the fact his advisers will report to No.10, a condition that Javid could not accept, as part of a restructuring that was said to entail the subordination of the Treasury to the PM's office. But it now seems that something like the opposite is more likely - that Sunak will perform a reverse takeover. He will drive the economic policy of this government, albeit in a way that's consistent with the goals of the PM. When No.10 and the Treasury clash over matters of policy, as they inevitably will, I expect Sunak to prevail more often than not. There are two reasons for this. First, there is simply nobody in the top ranks of government who can match Sunak's knowledge of economics, and in this context, knowledge is power. Second, he has turned out to be a much better communicator than anticipated and already commands public trust. In press conferences, he's been assured, clear, unflappable - and in control.
I recommend The Case of the Missing Hit, an episode of the Reply All podcast. It's a little masterpiece of podcast storytelling. It's not about much really - a guy has a song running round his head but can't track it down - but it really hooks you, much like a good pop song, and builds, layer after layer. About half-way through you might start wondering whether it will resolve satisfactorily - it does.
THE COMMS PROBLEM
Further to my thoughts last time on why we should not judge the UK government's response too harshly, read this thread by the historian Lawrence Freedman on the government's information flow about the virus from January onwards. Now we're in the crisis it feels as if everyone should have known it would be one but even the experts did not expect this thing to hit so hard until very late on. One area where we can confidently say the government has performed sub-optimally is communication. No.10 didn't have a plan in place for this and it has showed, with muddy messaging and chaotic briefings (it's crazy to me that they're still communicating via anonymous briefings to lobby journalists). They're getting better - this is a simple and motivating message - but why haven't they done a big TV campaign on social distancing at a time when everyone is watching TV? It isn't just a matter of banging out messages, either. We have weeks or months to go: the challenge will be repeating the same messages over and again without them becoming boring and ignorable. That will require creativity, not just consistency. (For more on communication and behaviour change read Rob Blackie in Campaign).
WHO TO BLAME
There is already some finger-pointing at China and there will be more in the months to come. While it's true that it suits some politicians to divert people's attention from domestic divisions, the blaming is not entirely unjustified, as far as I can see. Experts on pandemics have been saying for over a decade that there's a big problem with the way exotic animals are traded and consumed in Southern China, yet the Chinese government has failed to act. Meanwhile, China has been bullying WHO for political reasons - which has damaged that organisation's credibility (for some vivid evidence, watch this) - and it withheld information on C-19 from the rest of the world for too long. I'd be interested to hear counter-arguments but it does seem like China bears a great deal of responsibility.
Like many other freelancers my work stream has slowed somewhat in the last couple of weeks so if you want to hire me for anything, now's a good time. LinkedIn here or reply directly to this.
PITCHER OF WATER
Some people sang Bridge Over Troubled Water before the great NHS applause evening the other week, which got me thinking about that song. This eleven-minute extract from a BBC documentary includes some fantastic footage of it coming together. There's so much to savour. We think of BOTW as a piano song but Paul Simon wrote it on guitar, and we get to hear his exquisite early version of it (the full demo is available here). The piano part, written to achieve a gospel feel, was composed mainly by Larry Knechtel, who did a job for the ages. The string arranger Ernie Freeman entitled his score Like a Pitcher of Water because that's what he thought he'd heard. That refulgent last verse ("Sail on, silver girl...") was added at the last minute because Garfunkel believed the track needed to go big and achieve "lift-off"; Simon went along - he'd imagined it as a quiet little song - and scribbled new lyrics in the studio. Most interesting to me is that at the start of the extract we hear the older Simon saying, of the birth of the song, that it just "came to him" out of nowhere. At the end, though, there's footage of an interview that he did much closer to the song's creation, in which he lays bare his compositional process and reveals how the song was inspired by a Bach chorale and a particular gospel recording. I really recommend watching that interview in full or at least that segment, you can start from 5m40s here if you like - it's rare to see a great songwriter share their working in such detail. I guess by the time the documentary got made Simon had decided a little mystique was appropriate. For more on BOTW, read this fine piece by Mark Steyn, who explains why the song eventually drove a wedge between Simon and Garfunkel. (Ps Paul Simon got a lot of juice out of that Bach chorale - it also inspired my favourite song by him, American Tune). (Pps here's the source of that Biblical cadence in the chorus).
No man is an island but this guy lives on one and has some advice for the rest of us on how to cope with isolation (btw how very 21st century: a hermit with an Instagram account).
This is a clever way to keep tabs on which brands are responding to the crisis in helpful ways and which are not. My overall impression is that big public-facing businesses are doing coming out pretty well, particularly the supermarkets.
I enjoyed this essay, which includes a grudging acknowledgement that the internet might be not totally rubbish after all. I've done my share of griping about what the internet has done to our information environment but really, what the hell would this situation be like without it? From socialising to shopping to home-schooling, it has been vital - those much maligned companies of Silicon Valley turn out to have created public goods of real value. Then of course there is work. For decades, economists have debated why the internet hasn't led to an increase in productivity - well, if it didn't exist now there would be pretty much no producing at all.
A summary of good news about C-19.
POINTS OF LIGHT
Stand By Me.
Funny (for Javits Center, read Excel Centre)
Music and life.
People are good. Oh and this.
I recently put out a call on Twitter for people to suggest classical music pieces that make you feel like everything is all right. I got a lot of great answers. So I've put together a Spotify playlist. Naturally there's an emphasis on calmer, quiet moods but I've included some fun upbeat stuff too, the only real criterion being music that makes you happy, or at least, that makes me happy: this is a selection of personal favourites plus some of the suggestions from Twitter. I've ripped movements squealing from their homes, Classic FM-style, so if you like what you hear then do investigate the full piece or explore that composer. Anyway, I hope you find it soothing. Please don't share the Spotify link, I'd rather people get it from here.
If even The Ruffian's playlist does not soothe you, try this.
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