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The words that some survivor read
This week: what the scientists got wrong, why Trump will be missed, and my album of the year.
MAN OUT OF TIMES
For traditional media companies, the last ten years have been a horror movie. There are corpses everywhere and many of the survivors are horribly disfigured. One conspicuous exception is the New York Times, which is in blooming health. Much of the credit must to go to Mark Thompson, who recently stepped down as CEO after a decade in charge. During his reign, digital subscriptions, flat or in decline when he joined, increased tenfold, and the company increased five times in value. It’s one of the few examples in any industry of a truly successful digital transformation. The choice of Thompson to lead the NYT was imaginative to the point of eccentric: a Brit from the BBC who had never worked in newspapers, or even for a private company. I think it worked so well in part because he was an immigrant - to the country, to the industry. He could see things the insiders could not - for instance, that the brand’s digital presence was focused on news, when actually the paper offered lifestyle content its readers loved, from cooking to dating, that could be split out and packaged in its own right. In that sense, he looked at it like the BBC. He talks about all this and more in a fascinating interview with Amol Rajan for the BBC’s Media Show, available as a podcast. Thompson is also interesting on the BBC itself. He makes a good case against a subscription model, which would inevitably skew the organisation’s incentives away from universality and towards the targeting of the most fruitful demographics for new subscribers. The BBC has to be for everyone and that can only be achieved when everyone has the same stake in it. For a real BBC deep dive listen to the previous edition too, featuring outgoing BBC Director-General Tony Hall, who makes a spirited defence of his dirty deal with Osborne. (Pity they didn’t get around to my hobby horse which is that if journalism cuts are to be made, they should cut the BBC News channel, because Twitter.) Rajan is an exemplary interviewer - well-prepared, strategic, genuinely curious.
NEW FROM ME
In the New Statesman I look at why the UK’s scientific authorities were so set against masks, before they weren’t (the CDC in the US made a similar about turn). You might say they were trying to ensure that key workers got them first but given that masks don’t need to be PPE-level to be useful that’s hard to believe. I think the answer is something to do with how they think about what constitutes evidence of efficacy. Masks don’t do well in trials but that’s because what’s being measured is how well they protect people, rather than whether they slow transmission at scale - something that’s hard to prove but seems likely, hence the strong advice to wear them in Asian countries. It’s also about communication - the scientists were worried people would see masks as a panacea and ignore all the other precautions. I think they maybe had too little faith in the public’s common sense.
MISSING TRUMP ALREADY
If Trump loses in November, most governments in Europe will breathe a sigh of relief. But, according to James Crabtree, Asian governments - outside of China - are hoping he wins a second term. They think Obama was too soft on China and worry that Biden will adopt the same approach. This includes vital U.S. allies like Japan and India. Even a really bad administration can have its good points and I do think Trump’s willingness to take China on directly, albeit crudely executed, has been a necessary corrective to Obama’s aimless “engagement” without pushback on China’s expansionism. As a Japanese official puts it, “having a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy [under Trump] is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy [under Obama].”
Infection rates have been going up in the UK and other European countries in recent weeks, as restrictions have loosened. The question of the moment is why the rise in infections has not been accompanied by rising hospital admissions. First thing to say here is that hospitalisations are now increasing in the UK, although they are still very low. Either way, the gap needs explaining, and this piece by Dr Ellie Cannon in the Mail proposes a theory I hadn’t heard before: the people getting infected now are getting lower doses of the virus then those infected in the first wave, because of social distancing - and a lower dose means a less severe illness. Apart from anything else this piece is a model of good Covid-19 writing - everything is lucidly explained and rather than trying push her theory on you she points out how it might be wrong. This NYT piece suggests that the very imperfection of masks has a benefit: it means they act as a crude vaccine. The original idea of vaccination is that you expose someone to a small dose of the pathogen in order to generate an immune response which the body remembers when it encounters the real thing. It’s possible that masks, by letting just a little of the virus through, are performing that function. Meanwhile - the pause on the Oxford vaccine (reassuringly explained here) is frustrating but there are plenty of runners in this race. My go-to guy for vaccine explainers is Derek Lowe and his latest post is a round-up of the vaccines in development. It’s quite long and technical but if you read nothing else skip to the last two paragraphs for a blast of optimism.
Dept. of Harsh But Funny: “All possible plots by major authors.”
What’s it actually like when you’re a mulling a $1 billion offer for your startup?
Good interview with Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix (the interviewer is Maureen Dowd). Hastings comes across as honest, clear-sighted, a little cold. He’s promoting a new book, about Netflix’s workplace culture, which I hope to write about at some point. Despite being a digital entrepreneur, Hastings is very much not a fan of remote working. I’m with him (especially when it comes to creative organisations).
Fact of the week: Walmart, KMart, Target and Kohl’s were all founded in the same year. (1962).
Latte liberals: Reverend Al Sharpton makes quick work of “defund the police”. Although he doesn’t say this, shootings in NYC increased steeply post-Floyd. One possible reason is that police started doing less policing - that would be consistent with Roland Fryer’s work on viral incidents. I really think a lot of people have got the problem the wrong way around. The overwhelming majority of black lives being lost in the US are in poor, high-crime neighbourhoods without a pro-active police presence. But they’re not in the spotlight.
Quote of the week: “The rage for wanting to conclude is one of the most deadly and most fruitless manias to befall humanity. Each religion and each philosophy has pretended to have God to itself, to measure the infinite, and to know the recipe for happiness. What arrogance, and what nonsense! I see, to the contrary, that the greatest geniuses, and the greatest works, have never concluded.” Gustave Flaubert (h/t Tom Stafford).
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SONGS AND DAUGHTERS
I knew vaguely who Laura Marling was - precociously talented, lyrically sophisticated singer-songwriter - but I was never captivated, or captured by her as an artist until this year, after I started listening to her album Song For Our Daughter and basically never stopped. I think it’s a masterpiece. The sound of it is richer and lusher than her previous work - think California, early-mid 1970s, basically the peak era for rock production - and it’s full of gorgeous tunes, which hasn’t been her hallmark to date. It’s also more emotionally powerful than she’s been before, at least to me. Such an audacious idea to address an imaginary daughter; Marling is not a parent, which somehow makes the songs in which she assumes that role more, not less moving (and those songs are about more than parenthood). So, go listen - and then, after you’ve got to know the beautiful title track, check out this edition of Song Exploder, in which she takes us through the story of how that song came together. The show packs a huge amount into twenty minutes. The depth of Marling’s thought and the richness of her cultural world is so impressive, as is the care that she and her musicians took over every aspect of the production - what she says about the string arrangement completely floored me.