Discover more from The Ruffian
Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
This week: how politicians make themselves stupid, why I am a royalist, and whether Google ads actually work. Plus - The Ruffian has a sponsor.
THE BATTLE OF BAMBER BRIDGE
In a small town called Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, on the night of June 24th, 1943, two sets of armed troops faced off against each other over five hours. In the end only one man was killed, and a handful were injured. What makes the event remarkable is that all the troops were American; one side white; the other black. In this fascinating article the historian Alan Rice tells the story of what was in effect a mutiny of black officers against their white superiors, spurred in part by their encounters with the British working class. Black soldiers, used to Jim Crow laws at home, found themselves treated by the British as equal to their white counterparts. In some ways, more than equal: many Brits found the black soldiers more congenial than their white counterparts, and when US troops requested that British pubs impose a colour bar, landlords responded by putting up signs saying "Black Troops Only". I mean it's enough to induce a twinge of patriotism. The black GIs helped us too, and not just militarily: reading Rice's piece reminded me of a remarkable study from a couple of years ago. A team of social scientists found that the fraternising of black Americans with white Brits left a lasting mark. Today, people who live in areas of Britain in which black GIs were posted are on average more tolerant towards minorities - sixty years after the last troops left.
DUMB AND DUMBER
My New Statesman column this week is about why politics is designed to make its participants stupid, and what I think we get wrong about intelligence. In other news it was an honour to have Esther Duflo, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics, on Polarised.
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN
In the wake of Prince Andrew's disgrace, a lot of people are expressing incorrect views about the British monarchy. I'm a royalist - let me tell you why. Yes, in a democracy, it goes against reason to make a fetish out of some random family. But (as Martin Amis says, more elegantly and concisely than me, at the end of this 2002 essay) humans are unreasonable by nature, so it all depends on how you channel this irrationality, on where you put it. In the whole of our species history we have believed in magic families, and it's hubristic to think we've got past that now. Look at the U.S. which believes itself to be a rational republic but which keeps giving power to Bushes and Clintons and which recently elected a head of state who is totally batshit. The craziness will always find a way back in, and by keeping our own totemic family close to the centre of national life, while stripping them of nearly all political power, we have found a close-to-optimal solution. We get the best of monarchy - the symbolic connection to past generations, the gowns and gossip, and most importantly, the capacity to bind and unify a country that is becoming more divided in nearly every other way - without the arbitrary rule. Within the right structure, monarchies are a stabilising force. And you don't have to take my word for that: look at the evidence.
I'M ONLY SLEEPING
I've been a little sceptical about the sleep obsession that has taken hold in the last few years, not least because, as I wrote here, worrying about sleep is a sure way not to get any. Nonetheless I've been considering reading Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, a massive bestseller that has done more than anything else to make the issue prominent. But now I don't have to bother, as it seems to be based on very bad science. This meticulously researched and argued post constitutes a pretty devastating takedown of its major claims. I turns out that most of what we've been reading about the terrifying effects of under-sleeping is alarmist nonsense. So you can sleep better at night.
THE AD BUBBLE
The big shift in ad spending out of conventional channels and into the coffers of Google and Facebook is well documented (I last wrote about it here). But there's surprisingly little good evidence on whether and how digital ads work. We know quite a lot the strengths and weaknesses of TV and print because there's a database going back many decades. Online ads are relatively new, and notwithstanding the hype about their ability to target consumers efficiently, we're still finding out what they can and can't do well (Adidas is the latest big brand to reduce or recalibrate its digital spend). This brilliantly done investigation argues that many of the claims made for digital ads are based on bad math and bluster.
Between 2016 and 2018 the social network Tik-Tok gained 20 million users per month. That comes via this superb overview of social media usage over time. (Interview with Tik-Tok's boss here).
At least if you like words and politics, there can't be many more exciting ways to spend your twenties than on the speechwriting team of a successful presidential candidate. In this extract from his memoir, Adam Frankel, a member of Obama's campaign team in 2008 who then went with Obama to the White House, recollects what it was like having his drafts edited by a politician who cared a lot about words, right down to the details of punctuation. Giving editorial notes, like any form of creative feedback, is an art in itself, one which I've been thinking about recently as I've been getting notes on my book. One reason Obama was a good editor is that he rarely pointed out problems without suggesting a way of solving them. Even when the proposed solutions don't work, the act of proposing them makes the writer feel like the editor is down there in the trenches with them.
In which, for the first time, I understand that Tik-Tok can be an art form.
A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
As of today, The Ruffian has a sponsor: Look After My Bills. I first came across LAMD when I was watching Dragons' Den, which is basically my favourite TV show. I could write five thousand words on why I love DD and everyone who sails in it but luckily for you that will have to wait. Anyway, I was watching it one day last year when my eyes widened because the two guys pitching received huge bids from all five dragons, despite an already high valuation. This never happens. I also realised that I knew one of the pitchers, and co-founders, Henry, a little, and I knew him to be someone who cares about a lot more than turning a profit. The aim of LAMD is to detach consumers from our inertia-led attachment to the big energy providers and on to cheaper and more ethical providers, of which there are many. The truly neat thing about LAMD is that it takes all the hassle out of the switch; they do the shopping around for you and ensure that you're always on the best tariff. As it turned out, LAMD secured the biggest deal ever done in the Den. You can watch the pitch here (and if you're a fellow DD obsessive you can read the inside story here). But of course, sponsoring The Ruffian will be the real game-changer for them. It also makes sense for me, since I will get some money for writing this. I'll get paid a little for every sign-up that comes via this link. So, er, that's the ad. What are you waiting for?
And now an ad for The Ruffian. If you have enjoyed this week's edition I would love you to tell, persuade and harangue your friends into signing up. That's how I keep this thing growing and progressing. Please share this link: https://tinyletter.com/IanLeslie