Who else should we be clapping for?

I'm all for applauding healthcare workers but there are some other deserving recipients of gratitude...

Vancouver, Canada. The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward.

#ClapforBigPharma Bring out your pots and pans and start banging away for the scientists and administrators at Pfizer, Moderna, and others. These companies have moved at a phenomenal velocity to invent, test and produce a vaccine months before the most optimistic predictions earlier this year. Coming up with the vaccine was one thing, but the administration of vastly complicated clinical trials at speed without cutting corners is even more impressive (Astra-Zeneca’s rather messy example only shows how hard it is). None of this could have happened without the experience and global reach of the pharma companies. I’ve seen people saying “science is brilliant”, but science isn’t a thing that just happens, it’s a practice that takes place within and between organisations. Money has to be raised, manpower directed, choices made, risks taken. This isn’t just a story of private enterprise, of course: these companies rely on universities, and some of the vaccine risks were underwritten by governments. Having said that, Pfizer declined to take taxpayer money because they didn’t want political interference. If their vaccine had failed, they would have lost over a billion dollars. “At the end of the day it’s only money,” said its CEO. CLAP.

#ClapforTrump OK, this a very backhanded one, but it is true that if the US government had got a grip on its epidemic earlier and slowed its outbreak, the world would not have vaccines this soon. Both the Pfizer and Moderna trials rode waves of infection in the US. Part of the reason the Oxford/AZ trial is taking longer to provide definitive findings is that it didn’t hit any waves - the virus had been stifled in the UK and they had to go chasing it around the world. The more positive reason to clap for Trump is the success of his government’s vaccine task force, Operation Warp Speed (excellent backgrounder on it here). OWS moved decisively, putting money behind the most innovative vaccine projects. It moved responsibly too, putting the Moderna trial on hold in August because it hadn’t recruited enough black and Hispanic Americans. CLAP.

#ClapforImmigrants The head of Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, is a Moroccan-born Belgian American. The married founders of BioNTech are first and second generation Turkish immigrants to Germany. Katalin Kariko, the scientist who can claim most responsibility for making mRNA viable, is a Hungarian who pursued her academic career in the US (her daughter is a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the American rowing team). Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, a US company, is Greek. I’m sure there are many more examples I haven’t heard about. Why is that the first vaccines have emerged, not from China or elsewhere in Asia, but from the West, and the US in particular? Openness to talent and good people wherever they come from. CLAP.

#ClapforBigTech Imagine if a pandemic on this scale had hit us in 1990 or 2000, before the rise of the modern internet companies. Horrible as it has been to live through in 2020, it would have been an order of magnitude worse back then. We wouldn’t have been able to get groceries delivered or buy books (and everything else). We wouldn’t have been able to keep shops and restaurants open even on the limited basis that we have done. We wouldn’t have been able to keep businesses and institutions running over video-conference. The extraordinary global scientific collaboration we’ve seen simply wouldn’t have been possible. The hit to our economies and to our well-being would have been much, much bigger. I know the tech companies are not very popular right now and the mega-profits they make are disturbing. But this crisis has revealed that they’ve created an enormous amount of value for the world too. CLAP.

#ClapforTeachers As I say, I’m all for NHS workers being clapped first and longest but we should also recognise the enormous contribution of other public sector workers, like the civil servants who kept the government running despite everything (special props to those involved in getting benefits to the steeply increased numbers of people who need them). But because I have a stake in this one I’m going to put teachers first. The ones at my kids’ primary have done so much to reorganise the whole school to make it Covid-safe, while keeping it a warm and welcoming environment. I’m sure many of them were worried about risks to themselves and their families. I’m grateful. CLAP.

#ClapforRadio3Presenters Another personal one. You’ll have yours I’m sure...

I’m delighted to announce a partnership with The Browser, a daily guide to the best writing and podcasting online. Its subscription fee is 48 bucks, which is already good value, but now you can get 20% off your first year if you enter RUFFIAN20 at checkout. When I say I’m delighted I mean it - not because I’m liable to get rich from my cut of the deal but because The Browser has been my favourite corner of the internet for many years. It’s a triumph of human curation in the age of algorithms. I can honestly say it will make your life better.


  • Interesting on why vaccine forecasts were over-pessimistic.

  • Paul McCartney must have done more interviews than anyone on the planet. I’ve read many of them, so it’s a credit to both him and the interviewer, David Marchese that I found this NYT one fascinating, funny and in parts, moving. Due warning: I’ll be dropping a long piece about McCartney into your in-boxes next week, in time for the release of McCartney III.

  • Agnes Callard on ‘genius’ as a personality-laundering scheme, by way of The Queen’s Gambit.

  • A terrific long read from Jennifer Senior about a psychologist of happiness who committed suicide (NYT). Superb storytelling, dense with gritty wisdom.

  • Reflections on the 2020 election by David Shor, who in my view is the smartest analyst of US politics and the Democrats in particular. What makes him interesting is that he’s relatively young - he started in politics as a data wonk on the Obama 2012 campaign - and his instincts are “progressive”, but because he’s such an assiduous student of evidence he’s come round to the view that moderate strategies are more effective. Listen also to this podcast interview with him. Lots of interest in it but I’ll highlight a couple of points: younger Democrat politicians think of donors and media as their key audiences, and both groups are to the left of median Democrat voters. Dem moderates find it harder to get media attention than radicals; hence the outsized profile of AOC despite the fact that her views are to the left of Dem voters and persuadables, including minorities. In terms of campaigning there is a dawning realisation that data-based micro-targeting tactics have been overrated - that message and broad brush strategy are still crucial (something Biden understood instinctively). Those of you who work in commercial branding will note the parallels.

  • This is one hell of a chart.

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This week a ruling by three high court judges made it much more difficult for under-16s to be given puberty-blockers. The case was brought by Keira Bell, who was prescribed them when she was 16 and now regrets it. I can only imagine the bravery it took for Bell to go through with this. Her subsequent public statements have been a model of quiet dignity and good sense. Activists have been representing these drugs as a safe, reversible, ‘pause button’ (what a metaphor that is, by the way, as if human development is like a tape machine). The judges found that’s not true - that the drugs are unproven, experimental, and almost always lead to a full medical transition. Full judgement here so you can decide for yourself but to me it seems like kids going through a hard time have been misled by adults prepared to ignore concerns or evidence that don’t fit with their ideas. (Those ideas are self-contradicting anyway: on the one hand, that gender is not grounded in the body; on the other, that a child who identifies with another gender should alter their body.)

Thank you so much for all the kind and enthusiastic comments about the news of my book, out in February and available for pre-order now! (Even if, as I hadn’t noticed until it was mentioned, pre-order is a bit of a silly term).

Learning cannot be too common and the commoner the better.
John Florio, 1603.

On another fantastic edition of This Classical Life, Stephanie Wake-Edwards played a song called Cement Mixer (“putty, putty, putty”) by Slim Gaillard, which led me to this incredible clip of the dude in action.