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Oh my lover for the first time in my life
This week: Amazon's poundshop problem, China's social immune system, and what we think about when we can't sleep at night.
My latest New Statesman column is about what it means to be morally admirable. It was inspired by watching Mitt Romney's speech on the impeachment vote (by the way I recommend this episode of The Daily which features a couple of extraordinary interviews with Romney). The new edition of Polarised is about Britain's prison system - how bad it is and what can be done about it. It's not a topic I know much about but I found this conversation truly eye-opening. It features two very compelling guests who have both spent time inside. Anyone involved in public policy, or just anyone who cares about it, should listen.
This is a well researched piece on "pseudo-brands": basic products, like cheap gloves - the kind of thing you might pick up in a discount store - that are made in China and sold through Amazon under weird names, that are really trademarks rather than brands. They represent a big and growing part of of Amazon's business. Amazon doesn't sell to Chinese consumers anymore because it couldn't compete with Alibaba, but it actively recruits Chinese entrepreneurs to make products for American consumers. The result is a bit of a Wild West economy of sellers, with everyone trying game the search results and rankings, and Amazon itself doesn't really have a grip on it. The article suggests that pseudo-brands are a threat to established brands like Nike and Carhartt although I think if Amazon becomes one big online Poundland - a poundshop Poundland - it might spell the death of its own brand. (Fun fact: almost half of top Amazon sellers are from China.)
Moving Sajid Javid from his post makes sense. Ideally, the PM and chancellor should be in lockstep and Javid is not close to Johnson (not that anyone is - one of the striking things about Johnson is that he doesn't have or cultivate close cabinet allies). What I don't understand is why they didn't just fire him. Maybe Johnson balked at the prospect and so they ended up with this messy 'constructive dismissal' approach. Rishi Sunak is a huge economic nerd, more comfortable with technical discussions than Javid, who leaned on him for advice at the Treasury. He's also a Stanford MBA-style free marketeer and when it comes to Brexit policy will be an instinctive diverger, like his bosses at No. 10. What that means in practice - we'll see!
The current discourse around gender is confusing and confused. Within only the last ten years or so we've been asked to abandon our fundamental concepts of what it means to be male or female because - well, there is no 'because' there really, when you get down to it, just a circular argument: if someone says they're a woman, they're a woman. OK - so what is a woman? Why, it's someone who says they're a woman, of course. It's Alice-In-Wonderland logic. This interview with Helen Joyce of the Economist is the clearest analysis of it I've seen. Helen is good on why proponents of this view, here and in the US, adopt such a vitriolic, quasi-religious stance towards anyone who questions it, and on why much of the British establishment, including the police, has been co-opted: many of them were late to recognise gay rights and didn't want to make the same mistake twice. The intentions are good, but the two issues are only superficially similar. (You can skip to about 6 or 7m in although it's quite interesting to hear about Helen's background).
On nights when I don't sleep well, I've noticed my thought patterns are different from during the day. First of all, they are slightly more strategic and distanced from whatever I'm doing during the week, more of a helicopter view than a ground-level one. That can be genuinely useful - I quite often have insights or ideas during those hours (alongside thoughts that feel like genius at the time but which are revealed as drek by the daytime). The other aspect of my thinking is that it's darker. I'm not much of a worrier generally but at night things can suddenly seem really bad - then the next day, I feel positive again. This is all by way of introduction to this brilliant study which takes an indirect but clever route to measuring how our psychological states vary at night. It uses an analysis of what people tweet to identify different the cognitive modes we move through during those hours. Around 3am people are likely to be feeling anxiety about the state of the world; between 5am and 6am we focus more on personal concerns and what we want to achieve. (Pair with Paul Simon's Insomniac's Lullaby).
As Alex Tabarrok points out here, China's totalitarian-style government means that it can act decisively and sweepingly in response to a public health emergency, quarantining a whole city. But that China's authorities moved later than they should have done is also down to their mode of governance. This is an absolutely fascinating account of how news of the coronavirus emergency spread within China. It gave me a real insight into the internal politics and tensions of the country. The author says that the Wuhan authorities were late to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, partly because the press has been neutered in recent years which meant the truth was slower to surface: the Xi regime's crackdown on free expression has damaged China's "social immune system".
I hereby lay claim to a musicological discovery. Listen to the opening chord progression of this. Does it remind you of anything? Well, it might if you're a fan of the show. When I noticed it I thought, of course - who else would you turn to for that tense, neurotic vibe if not Schubert?
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As you may know, BBC Radio 4 does a terrific series - now a podcast too - called Great Lives. Matthew Parris presents, and every week a guest talks about a dead person they admire. If you haven't checked it out go see what catches your fancy but I'm here to recommend the film writer Antonia Quirke talking about Marlon Brando. I only had a vague impression of Brando, and Antonia's eloquent and invigorating passion for her subject helped me understand what made him so special. She's interesting not just on Brando himself but on film and acting and the nature of genius.
At the Oscars, Billie Eilish infused new life into Yesterday, a song which is both over-exposed and underrated. There's something weirdly pre-modern about it, as if McCartney tapped John Dowland's consciousness (when the composer Peter Maxwell Davies picked Yesterday, alongside a Dowland song, for his Desert Island Discs, he remarked on what a strange and mysterious melody it is). Lennon could write a melody too: Oh My Love (from his second solo album) also has a centuries-ago feeling, realised fully in this gorgeous duet between the folk singer Rosemary Standley and classical counter-tenor Vladimir Jaroussky.