Call it magic, cut me into two

This week: why you need a rival, what the police really do, and how to write a pop song.

Had I predicted which businesses were going to suffer most over lockdown I would not have said Spotify, but music streaming has declined steeply and is only now recovering. Its usage is more dependent than I realised on commuting; in lockdown, as Spotify puts it gloomily, “every day looks like the weekend”. If commuting is in long-term decline that is going to present a challenge for them (note - lockdown has been bad for Sky, too). Also notable from the company’s latest earnings report: podcasts are becoming a much bigger part of the business, and not because of a big rise in listeners to podcasts but because the same listeners are spending almost twice as much time with them. My guess is that’s because podcasts now form a vast and dense ecosystem delivering multiple listening options for whatever you’re into, however niche. They’re also relatively cheap and easy to make, so supply can keep ahead of demand. Having said that, very few of them will achieve the kind of critical mass needed to make a lot of money or even to be viable commercial propositions. Here’s to the hobbyists.

In the late 1970s Britain was home to two world-beating British middle distance runners, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. They had one of the great rivalries in sporting history, on the track and off. Everyone in the country favoured one or the other. Most preferred Coe, who was physically graceful and well spoken, but there was a lot of affection too for Ovett: awkward, shy, dogged. This is a terrific piece about the pivotal event in their joint story, the Moscow Olympics in 1980, at which both won golds but not the ones they, or we, expected. The article is full of lovely details and is revealing about the mindset of top athletes. By the end, as Coe looks back on it, it’s quite moving. There is something beautiful about sporting rivalries. They take place over a series of competitions in which someone must lose while the other wins - what economists call zero-sum games. But the rivalry itself is not a zero sum game, because both participants gain something from it. Each spurs the other on to achievements greater than they would otherwise have made. Go find yourself a worthy nemesis.

What do police do? Most people - including and especially the police themselves - assume they have one job: fighting crime. Do that well, and good community relations will follow. But in the US, crime has fallen over the past twenty years, crime-fighting has actually improved in various ways, yet relations are at breaking point. What’s going on? This article, by two criminologists, argues that crime-fighting and trust-building are actually two distinct roles, and that the police have focused on the former while totally neglecting the latter. I know that some officers do recognise the distinction. When I attended training sessions for de-escalation, for Memphis officers, for my book, the trainers and the cops kept coming back to the importance of building trust, both in the way that crimes are investigated but also in the many small human interactions, on the street, in a local café, which, done right, can enable citizens to see them not as aloof and threatening aliens but allies in the collective task of building a safer community. The Weeds podcast has a very good interview with the economist and policing expert Jennifer Doleac. In her low-key and careful way she exposes the problems with “defund the police”. The answer to almost everything in the field of police/crime studies is it’s complicated but one of the few firmly established findings is that when there are fewer cops on the streets, crime goes up. If anything (and this is me, not her) America should emulate Europe by spending more on policing, and less on prisons.


  • While the UK debates we locked down too late, Norway’s chief medical adviser wishes the country had not gone into lockdown at all.

  • For many of you, especially those of us who work in advertising/marketing, it’s not news that private label brands are made by the same manufacturers who sell the branded goods next door, but either way this is a really good deep dive into how Costco does it.

  • Amazon beat the market’s quarterly earnings forecast by seven billion dollars. That is an astonishing sentence. (A huge part of that is third party business - Amazon is propping up what’s left of our economies.) Bezos’s 4000-word statement to Congress is a small masterpiece of corporate storytelling and whether you agree with it all or not, rich with insight into growing a business. Another tribute to the commercial value of good writing.

  • I don’t generally share content from anons but this blog comment (from April) on why Taiwan has done so well fighting Covid-19 is entertaining at the very least. If Asia experts among the Ruffians agree or disagree with its argument, drop me a note.

  • Fact of the week: Joe Biden is the first Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984 not to have an Ivy League degree.

  • I love Agnes Callard’s list of things she is for and against.

  • How to remember where you left it.

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Something that frustrates me about proponents of cancel culture (for want of a better phrase) is the way they throw around the word “power” without taking care to define it. So, people will call, say, Steven Pinker, “powerful” when what he has is better described as “influence” or “prestige. Power is surely the ability to make things happen, and to compel people do things they do not want to do, like leave a job. It is obviously related to influence and prestige but collapsing these distinctions muddies the argument - which maybe useful if you do not wish to reflect on the remarkable success that a relatively small cultural/ideological cohort has had in co-opting political, corporate and institutional power over recent years. This deserves a longer post but in the meantime I commend to you two of my very favourite pieces on this debate - this one and, even more so, this one.

Couple of New Yorker pieces on great African-Americans: first, a 2018 piece on Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to play a central role in its abolition. Adam Gopnik, on fine form here, tells the story of Douglass’s life (by way of a book review) - which, if you don’t know about it, is just unbelievably dramatic, momentous and inspiring. Gopnik concludes that Douglass was probably the greatest figure America has ever produced, and it’s hard to disagree. Second, this 2003 profile of Toni Morrison, fascinating for several reasons. The latter is by Hilton Als, who includes a line of overheard dialogue that made me laugh out loud. Finally: the father of the French novelist Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) was one of the top generals in post-revolutionary France, in command of over 50,000 troops. He was also black, a former slave. Dumas Sr. was first an ally and then a rival to Napoleon, who ensured he was written out of history. More here.

That’s the name of this podcast
, which is short and very sweet. It’s hosted by a young British singer-songwriter called Frances, and the idea is that in each episode she invites someone to write a song with her in fifteen minutes. I listened to one featuring Maisie Peters (recorded pre-lockdown) and I loved it. It’s an education in songwriting creativity and craft and above all it’s just a blast of positivity. You know you’re old when you talk about “young people” but the best thing about this, for me, is the music of young voices making each other laugh and sharing enthusiasms (also part of why I love Radio 3’s This Classical Life). Before the challenge begins, Maisie is asked to name her three favourite lyrics, and her choices are EXCELLENT. They include two songs I love and one I didn’t know and now love. The song they come up with on the spot is pretty good too. Finally, I leave you with this magnificent old-school performance of the Sibelius violin concerto (if you’d like a primer on the piece, this is excellent).