I've been waiting for this moment for all my life
Why Biden made the right choice, the secrets of Tik Tok's success, and how to make Powerpoint your friend.
It’s pronounced comma-la, “like the punctuation”. Who knew? I didn’t - indeed, it’s a lot less obvious than Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate. She was always the most likely: a seasoned campaigner with a decent track record in government who can also, as a black woman, excite the party’s liberal base. The bottom line, though, missed in the chatter around her appointment, is that Harris will make zero difference to the election. Vice-presidential candidates never do, unless they are very controversial, like Sarah Palin, who cost John McCain a couple of million votes. And that’s the point. Biden is following the principle of do no harm. He needs this election to be about Trump, not him. Simply put, Trump is disliked and mistrusted and he can only win if his opponent is even more so or the whole campaign becomes utterly chaotic. In electoral terms, then, Biden’s incentive is to make his own campaign as predictable as possible, and this is what will have led his choice. I suspect Biden would have preferred to pick his former colleague Susan Rice but in the end was persuaded that she is too much of a lightning rod for Republican attacks and not enough of a politician to neutralise them. Personally I would have liked to see him pick congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief, but that would have been too interesting. Harris is the right choice because she is the most unsurprising choice.
NEW FROM ME
For the Economist, I’ve written about gossip, or the lack of it, during lockdown, and why I fear it may be terminal decline. Gossip depends on privacy, and we live in an increasingly online world where real privacy is scarce. I argue that we’ll all be worse off without gossip, particularly in the workplace. (Gated, sadly).
If you were to list the deepest mysteries human beings are bound to ponder during our brief existence on this insignificant rock they would surely include Why are we here? Is there a God? and WHO LET THE DOGS OUT? In this entertaining (albeit overlong) podcast, music executive Steve Greenberg tells the story of how he spent years toiling on the creation of that massive and indelible global hit about mysteriously liberated canines. It’s a story of one man’s almost insane perseverance, a case study in multi-cultural fusion (as opposed to appropriation), a glimpse into the music industry during its peak years, and a lesson in breakthrough innovations - the way they can seem utterly ridiculous for a long time before they suddenly flip into seeming utterly inevitable. We do not, however, get an answer to the question itself. (Fun fact: Greenberg called the label he set up to release the song “S-Curve”, after the famous diffusion curve pioneered by his former tutor, Everett Rogers).
While we’re on indelible pop songs, I’m sure many of you have seen this joyful video of two American teenagers from Indiana listening to In The Air Tonight for the first time. So let’s read/watch around it a little. Firstly and most urgently, this lovely backgrounder from Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker. Second, check out this Vox video explainer on “gated reverb” - the booming drum sound which explodes into the middle of that song and which went on to become the drum sound of ‘80s pop. Like many of the best inventions, it was discovered by accident. Finally, Michael Hann’s ranking of the greatest Phil Collins songs is marvellous. There’s something affirming about reading a first rate music critic praising the music you used to love but then became embarrassed about loving because everyone said it was dreadfully uncool. Generations of former teenage girls will know what I mean.
TIK TOK BOOM
This long blog post on Tik Tok, by software engineer Eugene Wei, is one of the best things I’ve read online this year. First, it works really well just an explainer - this is who started TT and who owns it, this is why it’s so successful. Second, it’s crammed with insights: how social media algorithms work their dark magic; how businesses should think about consumer feedback; the relationship between advertising and digital product; the real problem with Twitter (its tribes/subcultures aren’t separated enough) and more - so much about the modern world is illuminated here. Third, it’s beautifully written: it takes a complex and potentially dull topic and makes it as clear as glass while being perceptive and funny along the way. So I have little to add, really. Just read it.
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The 48 Laws of Powerpoint by Russell Davies. Required reading not only for what it says about Powerpoint but also for how to turn a list into a conceit that feels fresh, surprising and funny.
This interview with Malcolm Gladwell on Sam Fragoso’s Talk Easy podcast is very good. Gladwell is particularly interesting on the Harper’s letter, which he signed with mixed feelings. He offers his preferred two-word version.
If you want to know where the global entertainment industry is headed you need to listen to this fascinating interview with Matthew Ball.
In this Twitter thread Kenan Malik offers a persuasive case against the term “white privilege”.
If you’re interested in the UK A-level debacle this clarifying thread from Sam Freedman is essential.
Nick Cave’s idiosyncratic take on cancel culture.
I challenge you to read this sad story and not laugh.
ALL HE IS SAYING
Autumn, 1969. The Beatles are, unbeknownst to the world, on the verge of splitting up. John Lennon, who is making headlines with bed-ins for peace with Yoko Ono, flies to Canada to perform at a festival. In Toronto, a 14-year-old Beatles fan called Jerry Levitan hears a rumour Lennon is in town, sniffs out his hotel, gets to Lennon’s suite, asks Lennon if he can record an interview with him, and Lennon says yes (what an innocent time). Nearly forty years later, Levitan co-produces a charming 5 minute animation, based on the tape he made that day, and calls it I Am The Walrus. It’s such a fascinating snapshot of the era. The kid mentions that his classmates have gone off The Beatles after hearing stories about pot-smoking (“they’ll say their favourite group is the Bee Gees”). And it turns out that Lennon, for all that he seemed hopelessly naive, had a theory of political change more sensible than that espoused by the radical left.