Exit strategies

Jerry Seinfeld on conflict, the irrelevance of 'relevance', and why the virus is on its way out.

Jerry Seinfeld. Photo: Mark Seliger

Sorry this is so long. This week I had quite a lot to say about the virus, so I’ve put that further down. The top half of this newsletter is a zero Covid zone.

As well as being, you know, quite funny, Jerry Seinfeld has a roving, razor sharp mind, and I always look out for his interviews. This one with Tim Ferriss (transcript available) is very good. As most of you will know, I’m a Beatles fan, so it was interesting to learn he had them in mind when he ended Seinfeld after nine years. And he very much did end it - the show was still at its peak, the network wanted more. But he thought about how The Beatles made their exit at the top of their game, and how that meant nobody’s memories of them were tarnished by decline and mediocrity, and that helped him make the decision. (By the way does this make Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee…Wings? Maybe! I like both). Another fascinating part of the interview, for me, was a brief passage on conflict and confrontation - the subject of my new book (available for pre-order here). The Beatles split up because of personal discord, of course, but that wasn’t the problem on Seinfeld, partly because Seinfeld, as the boss, was pretty good at dealing with it in his team. “I don’t like discord,” he says, “I don’t like it, and I’m fearless in rooting it out and solving it.” That attitude of not relishing conflict yet confronting it is the right combination - some people like it too much, some never engage in it, both are problematic. If Seinfeld sensed that anyone had a problem, he would walk up to them and suggest they talk. A theme of my book is that if you don’t get conflict out into the open it just becomes passive-aggression, which eats away at relationships, whether in a workplace or a marriage. When I talked to experts on conflict, they could find upsides in direct and even hostile confrontations, and in amicable discussions of difference. But nobody has ever identified an upside to passive-aggression. It’s bad for relationships, it’s bad for team cohesion, it’s bad for creativity. Being honest about differences is particularly important when you have to make decisions quickly or you need to generate new ideas, both of which apply to a TV series. I like the wider lesson Seinfeld imparts here too: “I feel if you break the human struggle down to one word, it’s ‘confront’.”

I’d love you to pre-order my new book, CONFLICTED, on the art and science of productive disagreement. Less than a month to go now! For reasons I explain here, every pre-order helps. If you think you might buy it at any point, buying it now is like doing a favour to me at no cost to yourself.

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  • I’ve always disliked how the word ‘relevant’ is used in education debates to argue, for instance, that there’s no point teaching Shakespeare or Homer. Everything great is relevant, if you make it so. We shouldn’t narrow the horizons of children or students down to what we deem ‘relevant’ to them, when it’s presumptuous to think we know. In this gorgeous and acute essay, Garth Greenwell extends that point, applying it to the way new books are discussed. What does it mean to dismiss whole categories of books or art as ‘irrelevant’ - as in “we’ve read enough stories about…”? How can I know what I’ll find relevant, let alone anyone else? “Part of the vulnerability necessary for transformation is the recognition that I am, to a great extent, a mystery to myself.” This essay is relevant to far more than “relevant”.

  • Benedict Evans’s annual presentations on technology, media and the economy are always essential reading. Not sure I agree with everything in 2021’s “The Great Unbundling” but the quality of thought and evidence is so high and his charts are things of beauty.

  • The rise in Tesla’s stock price has single-handedly doubled the value of the automobile industry in a year when overall sales shrank. That means the stock market is betting either that a) there will be twice as many cars as there are now, or they’ll be twice as expensive or profitable - none which seems possible, or b) all the other automakers are worthless. Horace Dediu. Think about the geopolitical implications of (b) if the market is even half right.

  • Talk of ‘decolonising’ the humanities curriculum often implies or explicitly argues that Enlightenment values are indelibly racist. In this erudite review of a new book Ralph Edwards explains why that’s not just wrong but self-defeating, since it is the Enlightenment which provides the best tools we have for political liberation. I think it’s also just a bizarrely simplistic way to conceive of the history of thought - that if a thinker was racist, their ideas should be discarded. Good ideas can come from bad people, and good people can inherit bad ideas.

  • Looking back on my first thoughts on the Capitol riot, there are a few things I’d tune differently, but one thing I think I got right is that its importance was being magnified (most events are, in the moment). It’s too soon to say for sure, but several weeks later it already feels like it has faded. There haven’t been further riots. Impeachment didn’t and won’t happen. The divisions in the GOP have maybe rigidified a little but there is no split. I don’t think it was an epochal moment, but we’ll see.

Part ii - Covid


I highly commend this long interview with the Astra Zeneca CEO, Pascal Soriot, in which he discusses the dispute between his two mistresses, the UK and the EU, and convincingly refutes the EU’s accusation of perfidy. Soriot’s tone is meekly defensive in a “I’m disappointed you would even think that of me, but that’s OK, we’re all tired” kind of way - the mode of sorrowful affront that I like to adopt during marital arguments. His theme is that the EU, unlike the British, were late to put in their order, and the supply problems they’re facing now are simply the inevitable result of AZ having to manufacture vaccines at an absolutely unprecedented speed and scale. He is fascinating on the realities of vaccine production.

There’s no getting away from it - Britain’s vaccine task force, led by Kate Bingham, has played a blinder. Soriot notes that AZ signed a deal with the British three months earlier, which, crucially, gave us more time to smooth out problems in production. Bingham, a venture capitalist specialising in the biotech sector, is used to moving fast and taking risks, and although that ethos doesn’t necessarily translate well to the public sector, it does during a pandemic. Bingham took her biggest bet on the Oxford vaccine. Given the vaccine’s lineage (it was developed from a vaccine for another coronavirus) and the pedigree of the scientists involved, that was reasonable, but it was a bet the EU refused to take until much later. Meanwhile, like a shrewd investor, Bingham and her team diversified our risks, striking deals with Moderna and Pfizer, Novavax and J&J, which are not only different suppliers but use different technologies to AZ. Of course, it was senior officials and politicians signing this off, but it was Bingham who got them to sign off, and that might actually be her greatest achievement. I mean, imagine pitching the Treasury: “We want you to spend huge sums of money on vaccines before we know which if any of them will work. We want to buy many more doses than we have citizens (so that we’re hedged against failures; we can send the surplus around the world). If you wait, you could get them cheaper but I recommend paying high prices to secure supply. Oh and I want an answer now.” Hopeless! But she did it.

Pascal Soriot is reassuring on the big picture, waving away concerns about new variants. (If the current vaccines don’t work they can be re-engineered pretty fast). One remark he makes in that interview has changed the whole way I think about vaccines: “We believe that the efficacy of one dose [of our vaccine] is sufficient: 100% protection against severe disease and hospitalisation…” Now, the particular claim seems to rest on small numbers from the trial (we’ll have real world data soon) - maybe he’s seen more from ongoing trials but nonetheless let’s treat it warily. However, if he’s right, that’s amazing. One dose: zero hospitalisations! More generally, it made realise something about vaccine efficacy I hadn’t grasped before. Those headline figures for efficacy refer to any symptoms, when this whole crisis is driven, not by any symptoms, but by severe symptoms, in particular those that require hospitalisation. It’s the latter which lead to death and put unsustainable pressure on health services. A vaccine like AZ might have 70% efficacy overall but if it stops 100% of hospitalisations and deaths, that’s job done (well, a large part of the job). There were zero deaths in the Moderna trial. Israel has published results from 163,000 people who have had both Pfizer doses: zero serious cases. Trial data for the J&J vaccine (which is single dose): zero hospitalisations and deaths. Those are the most important stats here, not the topline efficacy figures. So - overall I think we’re in a pretty good place, with an array of really powerful vaccines which work in different ways and which can be modified on the run. At current rates the UK is projected to pass the 75% herd immunity threshold by July (the US similar or slightly later). Things will already feel very different by Easter. Just as the speed of the outbreak took us by surprise, the speed of recovery will do too.


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  • If you read the Soriot interview and you’re still hungry for vaccine manufacturing content, try this, a detailed account of how mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna are made. You realise how insanely complicated it is to make and ship vaccines at this scale. The world has never seen anything like it. Frankly I am in awe of Big Pharma. And the last step of the entire manufacturing process for mRNA vaccines is inside you - the production of the spike protein by your cells.

  • Fact (from the above piece): The biggest non-water ingredient in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines? Sugar. Don’t tell the paleos. I was also interested to read that Corning, the US company that makes the glass for Apple’s smartphones, has developed a new kind of glass for vials.

  • Somewhat overlooked: the J&J vaccine works reasonably well against the South African variant.

  • The SA variant might be the virus’s last best shot.

Hey did I mention I’d love you to pre-order my book?