Science moves forward, verdicts on BoJo, Trump and Amazon

Lucy McLauchlan mural in Leytonstone for London Mural Fest

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include science’s impact on the coronavirus pandemic, verdicts on the leadership of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a closer look at tech giant Amazon.

Ed Yong looks at the scientific research community’s successes and occasional failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic:

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the difficult but necessary decision of “cancelling Christmas” this year. Despite this, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him given the lack of leadership shown in managing the pandemic as ably described by Andrew Rawnsley:

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Being single during the coronavirus pandemic left me reflecting on how rules and regulations have predominantely been designed for couples/families rather than the growing number of people living alone. Megan Nolan provides a personal take on how “lockdown life” has hampered her and many other singles natural quest for intimacy:

Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.

There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.

Despite Donald Trump’s loud protestations, he’s going down as one of the most inept American presidents of all time. Given this, it’s interesting to read David Frum pointing (through clenched teeth) to 12 achievements that Trump has made during his time in power:

Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. 

Anne Helen Petersen looks at the financially precarious position of many people in the American middle class which she describes as the hollow middle:

Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.

It has been over 13 years since the launch of the first iPhone and the various iterations on the smartphone has changed the world we now live in. Benedict Evans looks at what technologies are likely to make an outsize impact in the coming years but also forecasts that the smartphones will continue to drive plenty of changes in years to come:

Amazon like many of the tech giants has seen its market position strengthen during the coronavirus pandemic as more people push their shopping online. Dana Mattioli examines how Amazon’s intense competitive spirit has increasingly brought it to the attention of both competitors and market regulators:

He still exhorts employees to consider Amazon a startup. “It is always day one,” he likes to say. Day two is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.” Mr. Bezos originally considered calling his company Relentless, and www.relentless.com still redirects to Amazon’s site.

Providing an interesting compliment to Mattiolis’ piece is Logic’s interview with an anonymous Amazon employee. There’s plenty of coverage of Amazon’s efforts to provide a secure environment for its web services. Where I found it particularly interesting was its commentary on Amazon as a workplace, particularly as it compared to the other tech giants:

I think your question kind of misses the forest for the trees. For most people at Amazon, glancing at the Apple News feed on their iPhone is about as much of the discourse as they consume. They don’t care about the news. It doesn’t contribute anything to their life. There are colleagues I’m friends with who don’t really know who ran for president. They figure it’s all going to be the same anyway, so why bother.

But by the same token, if they hear someone criticize Amazon, they’re not inclined to be super defensive. There aren’t a lot of intense loyalists. People at Amazon are mercenaries. The company doesn’t have great benefits. Office life kind of sucks and it’s not that fun of a place to work. It’s a grind. People work there because it pays a little bit better than the competition and it looks good on a resume. They can go in, do their job, go home, spend time with their kids, watch sports. That’s the good life.

Amazon has around a million employees worldwide. The majority work in shipping and logistics and delivery. There are maybe eighty thousand corporate employees. And I would estimate that fewer than two thousand of them have participated in discussions around organizing.

Joe Cascarelli looks at the world of music fandom which reflects the increasingly polarised world of politics:

n what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.

Thought starters: growth of Substack, dominance of NY Times and China vs USA

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include the impacts of the coronavirus, the growth of Substack email newsletter platform and competition between China and the USA.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has seen ecommerce experience something of a purple patch in 2020. Benedict Evans does a good job of pulling figures together from the UK and the US. It will be interesting to see what happens when lockdowns ease and fears of infection subside:

Substack is the new kid on the block providing a new outlet for journalists and commentators to reach audiences and earn a crust. Clio Chang looks at the opportunities it provides but also suggests that it doesn’t necessarily upend barriers to new voices emerging:

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. 

You can find more commentary and writings about Substack here. Among the writers who have joined Substack recently is ex Vox editor Matthew Yglesias who writes about the dominance of the New York Times in the US media ecosystem:

But fundamentally the digital media startup dream of obtaining massive scale and disrupting the incumbents hasn’t really worked. So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.

Language is often not as neutral as we would like it to be and the technology sector is certainly no exception. The NYT Open Team look at what theyre doing to create more inclusive language in the way they talk about technology:

Whether it’s terminology like “master” or “blacklist,” words with harmful connotations have been baked into tech communication for decades. Words like these bring with them the weight of slavery and discrimination, and signal that those who have held power in the tech industry have had the privilege to ignore the impact of these antiquated terms. People of color are still underrepresented in tech, and the industry’s continued use of these terms acts in direct opposition to an inclusive and equitable culture.

America’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t exactly done wonders for the country’s international reputation. Despite this, Tyler Cowen still sees the country in a favourable position when compared to its key global competitor, China:

Overall, it would be a mistake to be pessimistic about China. Its on-the-ground campaign against Covid-19 was very effective, its leadership pays great heed to science, it just signed on to a large Asia-Pacific trade deal, and its economic growth has resumed. Chinese supply chains proved remarkably robust through the major global crisis of the pandemic.

Still and all, the fact remains: When it comes to the ideas and the people that matter, America and the West are not losing the lead.

US government imposed restrictions on the supply of technology to Huawei have exposed how vulnerable elements of China’s economy is to global supply chains. Pranay Kotasthane and Rohan Seth take a look at the challenges the Chinese government faces in developing a semiconductor sector that would free it from the dependence on US technology:

Does this silicon rush mean that China will become self-sufficient in semiconductors soon? Not quite. China’s state-backed funds may well spur private investment, even producing a few champions, but such moves are unlikely to result in a self-sufficient Chinese semiconductor industry any time soon.

The Republican Party has traditionally been happier to cosy up with big business. Given this, it’s interesting to read research which suggests American CEOs are increasingly favouring the Democratic Party in a trend that pre dates the arrival of Donald Trump. I like to think we might see a growing counterbalance to the likes of the Koch Brothers and other associated libertarian and conservative voices:

We demonstrate that since the early 1990’s, it is becoming increasingly common for firms to be run by CEOs who are aligned with the Democratic Party, which we refer to as the blue trend. We find evidence that at least one factor driving this trend appears to be the rise of the role of women, who tend to have values that align with the Democratic Party. Further, we find that the blue trend is stronger in industries that are more considerable to women as a source of employees or customers (e.g., hospitality, computers, etc.).

The rise in Donald Trump, Brexit and various other contentious subjects has not always helped in the fostering of intelligent debate. Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement provides a valuable way of filtering out those critics who are well off the mark:

I have found debates over Corbyn’s sacking and reinstatement both interesting and tricky given the need to differentiate between anti semitism and criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian territories. I found this post definitely saw me take a more critical stand towards Corbyn and David Schneider’s write up helped in understanding where lines are that should probably not be crossed:

It’s obviously not my place to tell Palestinians how they should define their oppression, but for the rest of us, people need to be able to criticise Israel and Jews need to be reassured at a time of rising antisemitism.

With careful language, we can do both.

Sarah Zhang provides a thoughtful look at the introduction of widespread prenatal testing for Down Syndrome in Denmark. This has seen the condition become increasingly scarce among the country’s children:

Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.

Any media consumption now has to compete with our ever present smartphones for attention. Kyle Chayka points to Emily in Paris as an example of the growth of ambient TV thats designed to complement the distracted viewer rather than require close attention.

But all of that barely matters. The purpose of “Emily in Paris” is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds—on which you’ll find “Emily in Paris” memes, including a whole genre of TikTok remakes. It’s O.K. to look at your phone all the time, the show seems to say, because Emily does it, too. The episodic plots are too thin to ever be confusing; when you glance back up at the television, chances are that you’ll find tracking shots of the Seine or cobblestoned alleyways, lovely but meaningless. If you want more drama, you can open Twitter, to augment the experience. Or just leave the show on while cleaning the inevitable domestic messes of quarantine. Eventually, sensing that you’ve played two episodes straight without pausing or skipping, Netflix will ask if you’re still really watching. Shamed, I clicked the Yes button, and Emily continued being in Paris.

Header image: Mural by Thierry Noir by Zetland House in Shoreditch, London

Thought starters: gatekeepers, the spread of Covid-19 and the growth of ecommerce

Coronavirus lockdown and the American elections are dominating the headlines and these are some of the stories that have caught my attention recently.

There were rumours circulating on social media that there was a large story about to land that would seriously damage American presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Ben Smith reports on how the Donald Trump’s campaign tired and failed to seed the story with the Wall Street Journal and sees it as a strong argument for the continuing role of journalists as gatekeepers:

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

England is heading into lockdown after some dangerous procrastination on the part of the government. El Pais’ data visualisations provide a handy review of the imporance of social distancing:

For more coronavirus related visualisations, check out the New York Times’ look at how face masks reduce the spread of the pandemic:

One of the more thoughtful commentators on how to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. As attention moves to the Amercian elections, her analysis on the limitations of election forecasting provides a useful antidote to some of the wilder predictions:

This is where weather and electoral forecasts start to differ. For weather, we have fundamentals — advanced science on how atmospheric dynamics work — and years of detailed, day-by-day, even hour-by-hour data from a vast number of observation stations. For elections, we simply do not have anything near that kind of knowledge or data. While we have some theories on what influences voters, we have no fine-grained understanding of why people vote the way they do, and what polling data we have is relatively sparse.

Benedict Evans looks at some of the implications of recent changes in the retail landscape catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic. These changes aren’t just limited to the retail sector with flow on effects in the shape of our urban landscape and in how brands develop relationships with consumers:

Physical retail itself has been a ‘boiling frog’ for 20 years. Every year ecommerce gets a little bigger and the problem gets a little worse, but the growth in any given year was never big enough for people to panic, and you could always tell yourself that sure, people would buy that other industry’s product online, but not yours. I think we all now understand that anyone will buy anything online, given the right experience, and if your retail model is based on being an end-point to a logistics chain then you have an existential problem. 

For more of Benedict Evans with co-host Toni Cowan-Brown, check out Another Podcast, looking at tech’s impact on society we live in.

I remember fondly trips to Amsterdam’s supermarkets some years ago where conveyor belts would swallow up used packaging, providing consumers with a credit and brands with their packaging for reuse. Trips to Britain’s supermarkets even now feel like a step back with their tendency to wrap everything in plastic and limited attempts to close the loop. It’s no surprise to find UK near the top of the podium when it comes to the use of plastics according to reports in The Guardian:

Music is one of those passions I’ve held close to me through the years. My music collection started as CDs, flirted with MiniDiscs and migrated with time to MP3/AAC/FLAC. The impending demise of Google Play has seen me scrabbling towards Double Twist’s CloudPlayer but I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obsession with vinyl. The format struck me as a retrograde step but there’s a lot to be said for a record’s role as a cherishable artifact in your hand. I enjoyed Adam Gonsalves’ descriptions of the ups and downs of vinyl for the listener:

The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital.

Header image: Mural by Iker Muro in Stratford, London for London Mural Fest

Thought starters: Trump’s base, the increasingly global internet and life off the beaten path

Life working from home continues with the prospect of a tightening lockdown looming. Coronavirus continues to dominate headlines along with the looming American elections. Here are some of the stories and podcasts that have been getting my synapses snapping recently:

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Donald Trump and sometimes find myself wondering how he manages to garner support given his polarising politics. Anne Helen Peterson gives a thoughtful view on why many people continue to support him, not because they like him but because he is the one that is least likely to upset their precarious middle class existence:

These are the people who get lost when the media focuses on the stereotype of the Fox News-addled backwoods Trump voter. There are so many well to do suburban and small town women — mostly, but certainly not entirely, white — for whom all the ideological stuff, all the character issues, all the racism and white supremacist baiting, all the stuff so many people find morally repugnant, it just doesn’t figure. Part of that is because their class (and, often, race) means that it just doesn’t have to. But part of it has to do with an eagle-eyed focus on their own financial future. Other concerns, no matter how morally pertinent, fall to the side.

Donald Trump’s call for restricting TikTok’s access to the US market has illustrated how America no longer rules the internet like it once did…something that Benedict Evans explores in a recent blog piece:

You can argue about the details of these all day, but it does seem clear that we should just presume a global diffusion of software creation and internet company creation. It doesn’t really matter if Silicon Valley ends up as 25% or 75% of the next 100 important companies – America doesn’t have a monopoly on the agenda any more.

Increasingly accessible international travel (Covid aside) and advances in telecommunications often give the sensation that the world is shrinking. So it’s great to read Sarah Gilman’s account of St Matthew Island which continues to prove resistant to human habitation (and adventure tourism):

It occurs to me that to truly arrive on St. Matthew, you have to lose your bearings enough to feel the line between the two blur. Disoriented, I can sense the landscape as fluid, a shapeshifter as sure as the rootball and whale bones—something that remakes itself from mountains to islands, that scatters and swallows signs left by those who pass across.

Mark O’Connell provides a rather different travelogue with his trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with a rather critical and personal look at disaster tourism:

I wondered whether Igor and Vika held us in contempt, us Western Europeans and Australians and North Americans who had forked over a fee not much lower than Ukraine’s average monthly wage for a two-day tour around this discontinued world, to feel the transgressive thrill of our own daring in coming here. If it were I in their position, I knew that contempt is exactly what I would have felt. The fact was that I didn’t even need to leave my own position in order to hold myself in contempt, or anyone else.

Listening Pleasures

Lockdown life has scuppered many of my original holiday plans. A pleasing substitute has been taking on cycling trips around the UK (Cymru, Wessex and Norfolk). This has given me plenty of time to spend listening to podcasts and these have been more recent discoveries:

Rabbit Hole: Kevin Roose looks at what happens when we spend more of our time online for the New York Times with star turns from Pewdiepie and QAnon.
Wind of Change: Patrick Radden Keefe looks into how music is used as a tool of propaganda and social change and asks whether the German band the Scorpions acted as CIA stooges.
Interdependence – Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst talk about culture and technology with a range of guests. Participants have included Evgeny Morozov, David Turner (Penny Fractions), Kate Crawford (AI Now), Dr Larisa Kingston Mann (DJ Ripley) and Bruce Sterling.
Home Cooking: Cooking show hosted by Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder) with a healthy dose of personality.
Imaginary Advice – The Golden House series This is something of an outlier given that pretty much all my podcast listening is factual but it’s definitely managed to get under my skin. File under odd but amusing.

Header image: Mural by Will Vibes at New River Studios in Finsbury Park, London

Thought starters: the spread of coronavirus, the next Zoom and the perils of facial recognition

The New York Times has done a great job of creating a data visualisation of the spread of coronavirus pandemic across the United States. It also makes for an interesting illustration of how interconnected our societies now are:

If you’re interested at a more global level, check out the data visualisation from Washington Post.

Kashmir Hill’s account of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams’ wrongful arrest based on facial recognition provides a stark warning of the limitations of facial recognition technology.

Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.

Benedict Evans looks at what left Zoom so well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic but also speculates what the next big thing might be

Taking this one step further, a big part of the friction that Zoom removed was that you don’t need an account, an app or a social graph to use it: Zoom made network effects irrelevant. But, that means Zoom doesn’t have those network effects either. It grew by removing defensibility.

Ofcom has just released a report looking at Briton’s habits online. Great if you want a quick snapshot of what people are doing online, how they are served by online content providers and platforms, and their attitudes to and experiences of using the internet.

Whilst we’re on the subject of all things internet, Kaitlyn Tiffany takes a fascinating look at the intersection between My Little Pony and white nationalism…an intersection I wasn’t expecting:

Even a quick glance at the history of My Little Pony fandom serves as a valuable template for how not to build an online community. The fandom was born on 4chan, the largest den of chaos and toxic beliefs available on the internet. In 2012, a message board called /mlp/ was set up because My Little Pony conversation was taking up too much space on boards for TV and comics. It took off because there is nothing 4chan likes better than things spiraling out of control.

London is sometimes portrayed as a godless home of hedonists and technocrats so it’s interesting to find that the city is actually more religious than the rest of the country according to research from Theos:

The proportion of people identifying as religious is 62% in the capital, compared with 53% in the rest of Britain – a profile likely to be driven by immigration and diaspora communities, according to the thinktank’s report, Religious London: Faith in a Global City.

Graphic designer Milton Glaser died recently and you can get an inkling of the importance of his work in this review from Dezeen. What I found more impactful was Glaser’s run through of ten things he had learned which included the following:

Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being skeptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right.

Header image: Michael Takeo Magruder manipulates photographs from the British Library’s collection for the Imaginary Cities exhibition at the British Library, 2019. 

Thought Starters: Britishness, Trump goes AWOL and Black Lives Matter

Laurie Penny explores the notion of Britishness in a country that seems increasingly wrapped up in nostalgia:

But there is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Moseley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.

Fintan O’Toole profiles Donald Trump and his divergence away from Americas traditional democratic norms:

All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic, a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals. This half-life is ending—either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.

As Black Lives Matter focuses increasing scrutiny on American police, David Brooks explores how their record differs so much from other developed economies:

We’re tracing the etiology of dehumanization here, the gradual closing-off of natural sympathy between one person and another. Almost all cops resist this pressure most of the time, and we owe them our respect, honor, and gratitude. Many of us know warm and compassionate police officers, who have rejected the worst parts of their environment—but the cultural pressures are there, nonetheless.

The Slate’s visualisation provides a strong indication of the scale of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Recent unemployment figures from the US suggested that Donald Trump had me concerned that he might be spared the wrath of voters come in November. America’s failure to deal with coronavirus paints a rather different story and suggests the country may be faced with a U rather than V shaped recovery.

New confirmed cases of Covid-19 in United States, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, India and Pakistan

These figures from Reuters whilst not comparing apples with oranges, do give a clear indication of the generational divide between podcast and radio listeners.

Proportion that used a podcast in the last month and radio news in the last week by age

On a similar note, Benedict Evans looks at the growth and the more recent decline of the newspaper sector, rattled by decline consumption and advertising revenues…a point of real concern if we are expecting the fourth estate to keep a check on power.

US newspaper industry metrics

Of long been fascinated by cities, their form and how they’ve evolved to what we’re presented with today. Colouring London provides a great opportunity to explore one of the world’s great cities with overlays for age, construction, streetscape, sustainability and more.

Colouring London: age overlay

I was one of those people that happily fled the suburbs for the inner city…Ian Bogost reviews the role of suburbs in the age of coronavirus suggesting that it has strengthened their hand although this is the quote that stuck in my mind:

The tax base that suburbia generates often can’t support the infrastructure required to sustain it—roads, sewers, schools, emergency services, and all the rest. Along with federally backed mortgages and mortgage-interest deductions, the suburban lifestyle amounts to an enormous government subsidy, or else it slowly decays into disrepair.

Header image: Photo taken on visit to Heatherwick Studio during Open House London in 2019.

Thought starters: coronavirus, intergenerational equity and the real Lord of the Flies

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The UK media has been consumed by speculation over what rules Dominic Cummings broke in his trip to Durham. Unfortunately this attention has left the government off the hook for the bigger picture. John Burn-Murdoch and Chris Giles estimate that the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths from the
coronavirus pandemic after Spain according to excess mortality figures:

Many politicians have claimed their decisions have been driven by science. In Israel epidemiologists have been sidelined which has apparently led to government forecasting to be well off target according to reporting from Meirav Arlosoroff:

All their models were based on mathematical assumptions on the rate of contagion that in the end proved wrong. To their immense disappointment, it turns out the coronvirus is a biological phenomenon that doesn’t fit the rules of mathematics. The bastard killer didn’t study math at an advanced level and to the shock of those doing the calculations tended to change its behavior over time. Why? Maybe because of the change in temperature, maybe because of genetic diversity. The bottom line is all the models predicted a rise in cases with the end of the lockdown and yet the opposite has occurred.

Sweden is continuing to prove an interesting source of discussion with its more liberal approach to quarantining and social isolation. Like many countries, the jury is still out and what was right and wrong on its approach as Sam Bowman and Pedro Serodio explore:

Ultimately, Sweden shows that some of the worst fears about uncontrolled spread may have been overblown, because people will act themselves to stop it. But, equally, it shows that criticisms of lockdowns tend to ignore that the real counterfactual would not be business as usual, nor a rapid attainment of herd immunity, but a slow, brutal, and uncontrolled spread of the disease throughout the population, killing many people. Judging from serological data and deaths so far, it is the speed of deaths that people who warned in favour of lockdowns got wrong, not the scale.

I’ve lived in London for the last 20 years where I have seen countless changes and endless waves of gentrification. The Economist looks at whether coronavirus is going to put a stop on its outsize role in the UK economy:

London is unlikely to slip back into the dismal state it was in before the mid-1980s. It is likely to remain richer and more productive than the rest of Britain. It will remain Europe’s most powerful magnet for talented immigrants. Still, its pulling power is likely to wane. If that happens, Britain’s economy will probably suffer. But a less centralised country, in which opportunity was more evenly distributed, might be a better place in other ways.

Coronavirus has caused further distress to pubs which were already declining in Britain. It was apparently a rather different story after the Black Death swept through the country according to Richard Collett:

By the 1370s, though, the Black Death had caused a critical labor shortage, the stark consequence of some 50 percent of the population perishing in the plague. Eventually, this proved a boon for the peasantry of England, who could command higher wages for their work and achieve higher standards of living. As a result, the alehouses that were simply households selling or giving away leftover ale were replaced by more commercialized, permanent establishments set up by the best brewers and offering better food.

Intergenerational equity has many different facets but economics is one of the areas where inequities can most clearly be seen. Many of us grew up with the expectation that our situation would be better than that of our parents. Reporting from Andrew Van Dam in the US (situation may well be different in emerging markets) paints a different picture for millennials whose poor showing is now being compounded by the coronavirus pandemic:

Donald Trump has at times been a savvy user of social media, using it galvanising his political base and often paying little heed to the facts. Twitter calling out one of his tweets recently which has brought an inevitable backlash from Trump but Peter Baker and Daisuke Wakabayashi speculate this could be counterproductive for the US president:

But the logic of Mr. Trump’s order is intriguing because it attacks the very legal provision that has allowed him such latitude to publish with impunity a whole host of inflammatory, harassing and factually distorted messages that a media provider might feel compelled to take down if it were forced into the role of a publisher that faced the risk of legal liability rather than a distributor that does not.

In a sign of changing times, China now exports more to South East Asia than it does to USA as trade tension rise according to reporting from Dan Kopf:

Ben Smith posits that new tools such as Cameo, Substack and Patreon are making it much easier for creators, celebrities and opinion makers to earn a comfortable living off a small but passionate audience:

In fact, in this new economy, some people may be able to make a living off just 100 true fans, as Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argued recently. Ms. Jin calls this new landscape the “passion economy.” She argues that apps like Uber and DoorDash are built to erase the differences between individual drivers or food delivery people. But similar tools, she says, can be used to “monetize individuality.”

I moved to New Zealand when I was 7, living there for 17 years (1982-1999) but don’t think I ever felt the sense of national identity that many of my Kiwi friends did. That being said, I definitely think the country matured in the time I was there and think this process continues. This ode to New Zealand and Jacinda Ardern from Umair Haque had me feeling a tad ‘homesick’

When I say “new leader of the free world,” I don’t just mean Jacinda Ardern. I mean New Zealand. As a society. New Zealand is a textbook example of what it means to be a thriving, functioning, modern society in the 21st century. It is a leader in that sense. It ranks seventh in the Social Progress Index — and is going to rise far higher after Coronavirus, easily cracking the top five or three. America, meanwhile, ranks a dismal…26th. And it’s going to plummet. There’s something special about New Zealand, happening in it, right about now. The world should pay attention.

There was a lot of noise recently of Rutger Bregman’s story of 6 Tongan boys stranded on a deserted island, providing a counterpoint to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Meleika Gesa provides a more nuanced view of the story pointing to the importance of the boys upbringing and questions who owns the story:

The original article could’ve done more for the six men. The story should have been told by a Tongan. The story should have been told by the men themselves and their families. This is their story, will always be their story. The article doesn’t mention how the boys felt or why they made the choices they made. It lacked their perspective. It lacked the very Tongans the story was about, with the exception of Mano. But even then, Mano was sidelined. He deserves to share his story how he would want to.

Another story of resilience comes from Marga Griesbach’s life which saw her survive her survive the Holocaust in an account relayed by Rebecca Traister:

In late September, the SS told prisoners they were seeking volunteers to work on a job outside the camp. “I said to my mother, ‘Let’s try to be sent away to work.’ Because I can’t go on here.’ ” Therese worried that her daughter’s emaciated frame would keep her from being chosen for the job. “She put the lipstick on my cheeks,” Marga said, “and some on her cheeks, to make her look younger, and make me look older and healthier.”

If you are looking for some aural inspiration, Open Culture’s list of podcasts is well worth a trip with many that are already on my subscribe list.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something for your reading list, you could do worse than reading John Lanchester’s The Wall (unless what you want is something more escapist).

Finally, if you’re looking for something more calming, O Street’s Roadliners video could be just the trick.

Header image: Concentric Eccentric Circles by Felice Varini at the fortress of Carcassonne in 2018. More photos of the installation here.

Thought starters: QAnon, avocado politics, the decline of Iran and pizza arbitrage

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many governments and organisations have had to make decisions act under a cloud of uncertainty. Cathleen O’Grady takes a critical look at some of the research emerging from the social sciences compounding already present concerns about the replication crisis:

So are the social sciences ready to help us navigate the pandemic? Evidently, experts disagree, and their scuffle is part of a broader debate about how much evidence we need before we act. The coronavirus crisis forces a tough, society-wide lesson on scientific uncertainty. And with such escalated stakes, how do we balance the potential harm of acting prematurely with the harm of not acting at all?

There have been quite a few countries where more decisive action would have made a huge difference in the health outcomes from the coronavirus pandemic. Tim Harford explores the different factors that people and organisations too slow to take action when faced with a crisis:

While I realise some people are paranoid about catching Covid-19, it’s egotistical optimism that I see in myself. Although I know that millions of people in the UK will catch this disease, my gut instinct, against all logic, is that I won’t be one of them. Meyer points out that such egotistical optimism is particularly pernicious in the case of an infectious disease. A world full of people with the same instinct is a world full of disease vectors. I take precautions partly because of social pressure and partly because, intellectually, I know they are necessary. But my survival instinct just isn’t doing the job, because I simply do not feel my survival is at stake.

The rise of the QAnon community in the US points to something even more concerning where there is willful blindness to facts and information. Adrienne LaFrance’s account is concerning particularly given the movement’s proximity to Donald Trump:

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

I can remember being involved in campaigning in 1990s New Zealand and being made aware of the different shades of environmentalism. Climate change has raised the profile of environmental causes and Nils Gilman look at potential synergies between far right groups and environmental causes with interest and trepidation:

Right-wing environmentalism and climate alarmism are coming, and as they do, the political battle lines over the environment are going to look very different from the ones we have experienced during the past few decades. No longer will the primary battle be between conservative climate change deniers or skeptics, on the one hand, and liberal climate realists on the other. Instead, the primary fight will be between those who treat the reality of climate change as an imperative for creating a more inclusive and egalitarian world, and those who see it as a justification for exclusion and hoarding, retreating into ever-smaller circles of empathy. Indeed, right-wing environmentalism may be how the post-Trump anti-globalist Right repositions itself for broader appeal by reclaiming the impulses that motivated American conservationism to begin with. After all, if globalized neoliberal capitalism is what is both driving climate change and preventing any effective response, then an alliance of green and nationalist anti-globalizers (albeit motivated primarily by different things) seems all too possible.

Dexter Filkins paints a tragic story of Iranian society under the leadership of Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has been one of the countries most heavily hit by coronavirus but this appears a symptom of wider problems:

Isolated and dysfunctional, the Islamic Republic had reached a dead end, she said: “The regime has lost all popular support, and yet it is incapable of change. The result is that the Iranian people have lost hope. We are hopeless now.”

As countries such as Iran look to block their citizens access to the unfiltered internet people and organisations look for ways to get around it. Reporters without Borders has created The Uncensored Library in Minecraft to help people access materials that are likely to be censored in their home countries.

Barton Gellman provides a first hand account of what it’s like to be a under the spotlight from different state apparatus. It’s enough to put my own complaints about IT problems and security in perspective:

Most hacking attempts are sent to thousands, or millions, of people at a time, as email attachments or links to infected websites. This one was customized for me. It was a class of malware known as a “remote access trojan,” or RAT, capable of monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, recording audio and video, and exfiltrating any file from my computer. “Piss off any Russians lately?” Marquis-Boire asked. The RAT was designed to link my computer to a command-and-control server hosted by Corbina Telecom, in Moscow. If I had triggered the RAT, a hacker could have watched and interacted with my computer in real time from there. Other IP addresses the malware communicated with were in Kazakhstan. And internal evidence suggested that the coder was a native speaker of Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. But the moment Marquis-Boire tried to probe the RAT for more information, the command-and-control server disappeared from the internet.

I understand many startups are racing to grow their audience to a point where they can take advantage of network effects. This has led to some puzzling situations with investors and venture capitalists throwing cash at startups where there’s little in the way of barriers to entry. Ranjan Roy’s account of pizza arbitrage makes for an interesting illustration of how some of this funding is missing the mark:

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though – just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation 🙂 He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an “actual business” while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters.

If you are looking to launch a startup, Lenny Rachitsky’s review of how various high profile startups reached their first 1000 users is reviewing:

How startups acquired their first 1000 users

Navneet Alang explores explores how whilst are diets are becoming more diverse, all too often those people introducing them aren’t raising concerns about cultural appropriation among other issues:

The question that such representations present for the food world is a difficult one: Who gets to use the global pantry or introduce “new” international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable query: Can the aspiration that has become central to the culinary arts ever not be white?

I have been happily watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance with its celebration of his immense sporting prowess. I would also suggest what were getting is a sanitised version of the truth given that Jordan was given the opportunity to have the last word. Wesley Morris’ review in the New York Times provides a pretty even handed review but if you really want a clearer view on what shaped Jordan including racism of the Deep South, I’d suggest reading Wright Thompson’s profile.

Kendall Baker has pulled together a suggested list of the 50 greatest sports documentaries of all time. I certainly don’t object to the high placing of Hoop Dreams and OJ: Made in America where as much about society as they were about sports but do wish the list had included a Sunday in Hell which is a personal favourite.

One of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog with great work on Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God. You can get a further taste for his idiosyncratic personality in David Marchese’s interview in the New York Times:

I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.

Header image: Ministry of Highway Construction taken on a cycle tour around Georgia. More photos of the building here.

Thought starters: impact of coronavirus, Trump’s failures and the grow of VR and blockchain

We are beginning to see countries emerge from lockdown typically as the spread of coronavirus begins to peter out. Sweden has been something of an outlier in Western Europe with a relatively approach to social distancing and its embracing of the process of herd immunity as Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern, and Daniel B. Klein recount:

As the pain of national lockdowns grows intolerable and countries realize that managing—rather than defeating—the pandemic is the only realistic option, more and more of them will begin to open up. Smart social distancing to keep health-care systems from being overwhelmed, improved therapies for the afflicted, and better protections for at-risk groups can help reduce the human toll. But at the end of the day, increased—and ultimately, herd—immunity may be the only viable defense against the disease, so long as vulnerable groups are protected along the way. Whatever marks Sweden deserves for managing the pandemic, other nations are beginning to see that it is ahead of the curve.

As we attempt to move back to something close to normal life, many of us are beginning to look at ways of mitigating the risks we face particularly in our workplace. It looks increasingly like it’s indoor spaces where we’re most vulnerable to infection. Dr Erin Bromage reviews case studies of where we have a clearer view on where coronavirus was spread, providing some helpful advice:

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

It’s proving hard to get a clear picture on the impact of coronavirus on countries health, complicated by difficulties in gathering statistics and attributing deaths to the virus. The Economist has pulled together figures on excess mortality for different countries which provide an indication of how big a mark the virus has left on different populations.

Excess mortality since region/country’s first 50 covid deaths

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic but Edward Luce’s account provides one of the better ones:

In hindsight, Trump’s claim to global leadership leaps out. History will mark Covid-19 as the first time that ceased to be true. US airlifts have been missing in action. America cannot even supply itself.

The coronavirus pandemic has made disparities between different parts of society more apparent with knowledge workers often able to work from home. Service and manufacturing workers on the other hand are more likely to face unemployment or working in environments where working with social distancing might not be possible. Sara Selevitch’s account of life as a restaurant worker in Los Angeles makes clear some of the challenges many people are facing:

What I am getting used to instead is the arrival of a future that tech companies have been priming us for: public spaces populated mostly by delivery drivers purchasing doomsday groceries and meals for those wealthy enough to stay home.

The reality ignored by every #StayAtHome PSA is that people’s ability to social distance relies on the labor of others. It’s not so much that the work we’re doing is itself essential. It’s our working, rather, that is essential to maintaining the status quo.

Amazon is one of the organisations that has strengthened its hold on society during the pandemic acting as online department store for the masses (or at least those who can afford Amazon Prime). Unfortunately some of Amazon’s workers are doing better than others, so it’s encouraging to see some of their more privileged workers such as Tim Bray making their voices known:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.

The election of Barack Obama gave many of us hope that America would become a post racial society but the election of Donald Trump has brought on a retrogressive trajectory. Here Adam Serwer reflects on what he describes as America’s racial contract:

The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so it’s great to see him writing about the food industry again even if the words are not especially flattering:

The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly, ensuring that food workers have sick pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some degree of efficiency in favor of much greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case not only for a different food system but for a radically different diet as well.

Franklin Foer points to the fragility of the American democratic system given the threat from the Russian state and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to address it:

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

Virtual reality has been one of those technologies that has seemed just around the corner for the last 10 years. While the consumer version of Oculus’s VR headsets have now been available for over 10 years now and there’s little sign of them making major in roads, even within the gaming community. Benedict Evans reflects on where to next:

To put this another way, it’s quite common to say that the iPhone, or PCs, or aircraft also looked primitive and useless once, but they got better, and the same will happen here. The problem with this is that the iPhone or the Wright Flier were indeed primitive and impractical, but they were breakthroughs of concept with clear paths for radical improvement. The iPhone had a bad camera, no apps and no 3G, but there was no reason why those couldn’t quickly be added. Blériot flew across the Channel just six years after the Wrights’ first powered flight. What’s the equivalent forward path here? There was an obvious roadmap for getting from a duct-taped mock-up to the Oculus Quest, and today for making the Quest even smaller and lighter, but what is the roadmap for breaking into a completely different model of consumer behaviour or consumer application? What specifically do you have to believe will change to take VR beyond games?

In a similar manner, Chris Dixon and Eddy Lazzarin explores the development of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, positing that we’ve seen three waves of innovation (with presumably more to come):

Crypto Price-Innovation Cycle

Andy Greenberg’s profile of Marcus Hutchins provides an engaging tale of redemption in the latters transition from black to white hat hacker:

Stadtmueller began, almost as if reminiscing to himself, by reminding Hutchins that he had been a judge for more than three decades. In that time, he said, he had sentenced 2,200 people. But none were quite like Hutchins. “We see all sides of the human existence, both young, old, career criminals, those like yourself,” Stadtmueller began. “And I appreciate the fact that one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero. And that is, at the end of the day, what gives this case in particular its incredible uniqueness.”

Header image: Clearing VII by Antony Gormley from his 2019 Royal Academy exhibition.

My media diet

Books read

I don’t spend as much time as I would like reading books as I find longform journalism often filling this space. That being said, books do provide a depth you can’t hope to get from a newspaper column or magazine article. You can find my incomplete reading list over on Goodreads.

Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

by Jeffrey Boakye: A personal look at the language used by and about black people in the UK by a South London born teacher. Far from providing a definitive account but interesting to hear his take from the position as a first generation Ghanian in the city I now live in.

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

by Jace Clayton: I’ve been a long standing fan of Jace Clayton both as a DJ (his Solar Life Raft with Matt Shadetek being a particular favourite) as well as a writer. Uproot brings together a collection of his writings acting as something of a travelogue as he visits various music communities looking particularly where technology has re-shaped  music particularly from non Western creators. 

Nobber

by Oisín Fagan: I tend to favour fiction written in the present or the future so a book set in 14th century Ireland during the Black Death is something of an outlier. I appreciated the prose but didn’t find it a particularly easy read.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

by Gretchen McCulloch: inspired by an interview with Gretchen on the Ezra Klein Show. It’s great to hear how language has been shaped by communities on the internet and also provided the opportunity to brush up on my own digital etiquette.

Films

Find below films that I’ve seen relatively recently that I have appreciated even if it hasn’t necessarily left a smile on my face. You will find a more complete picture of what I have watched now and in the past on my Letterboxd profile.

Parasite

It seems almost another era when I was able to catch Parasite at the cinema but I would still describe it as a classic and something I am looking forward to revisiting. There’s some great explainer videos on YouTube which point to why the film makes such a great impact including ones from Thomas Flight and Nerdwriter.

Beanpole

I have had a growing fascination with the old Eastern Bloc helped along by occasional visits, the work of the Calvert 22 Foundation and representations on the silver screen (Leviathan,
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Tangerines spring to mind). Beanpole definitely fits at the bleaker end of the cinematic spectrum following the lives of a couple of women in Leningrad soon after the end of World War II.

Come and See

Another film that’s probably best not viewed if you’re on a downer. A Belarusian film set in World War II that is now considered something of a classic. Whilst the film definitely ticks some of the usual boxers associated with a war film, it also has an ethereal quality at times that definitely left a strong impression.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers are long standing favourites of mine with the wood chipper scene from Fargo remaining indelibly imprinted on my memory. A Serious Man isn’t as flashy as some of their other films but definitely has a healthy dose of black humour.

Dark Waters

The film brought to mind Michael Mann’s The Insider with a David versus Goliath battle (in this case with DuPont rather than the tobacco industry). Mark Ruffalo puts in a strong performance as a lawyer who switches sides from corporate defender to consumer plaintiff.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I’m not the greatest fan of French cinema or period drama but I read enough recommendations to persevere and the film impressed with its beauty.

Dheepan

Another French film that like La Haine, focuses on the experience of some of the marginalised that inhabit Paris’ banlieue. Dheepan focuses on a trio of Sri Lankan refugees thrown together in an environment that appears almost as toxic as the country they fled.

Queen & Slim

It’s interesting contrasting this film with Green Book. Both are road movies looking at racism in Southern America but Green Book is set in 1962 whereas Queen & Slim suggests there’s still plenty of need for #blacklivesmatter.

Memories of Murder

Watching Parasite inspired me to take a closer look at one of director Bong Joon-ho’s earlier works. You definitely a sense of Bong’s feel for the absurd but Parasite feels like a more accomplished work.

The Assistant

Drama following the experiences of a young graduate in a film production company with strong echoes of accounts from The Weinstein Company. Julia Garner cements her position as one of my favourite actresses with scene stealing role in Ozark.

Television

If there was one thing I’d like to see changed with Letterboxd, it would be the inclusion of television as well as film. Whilst I understand purists arguments for the uniqueness of film, in the age of streaming media I would argue the delineation between between the two mediums is tenuous at best.

Babylon Berlin

I have a something of a crush on Berlin which I put down to growing up there for a period with a particular fascination with the city’s Cold War history. Babylon Berlin is actually set in the earlier Weimar Germany and provides a much more fraught environment than you associate with many British period dramas. The production is stunning and the rising tide of fascism definitely provides something to reflect on as we see the growth of the far right around the world.

Ozark

For those of you looking to fill the slot left by Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, this series follows a family involved in laundering drug money in the American Ozarks. Series three recently went live on Netflix and reflects a return to the earlier form with some great acting and character journeys.

The Plot Against America

HBO series based on an adaption of a Philip Roth novel in an alternative reality where Charles Lindbergh is elected president and tilts USA towards fascism and antisemitism. The series doesn’t match up to creator David Simons’ strongest work (The Wire, Treme, Show me a Hero), but it provides another warning of how easily politics can be derailed in the wrong circumstances.

Homeland

I haven’t always got on with Homeland sometimes coming across as islamophobic and at times preposterous. That being said said the series often quickly responded to issues of the day. Series eight represents a return to form for the series centring on a potential peace process in Afghanistan with the usual mix of spycraft and international politics.

Normal People

I’ve seen too many fawning reviews of this BBC adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel with Jessa Crispin’s takedown echoing many of my own thoughts. That being said, it makes for easy escapist viewing with half hour episodes making for bite sized morsels.

Podcasts

I’m struggling to keep up with my podcast feed now that I’m no longer commuting to work. That being said, I find podcasts provide an important respite from the here and now of more traditional online news sources.

regular shows
Anthropocene Reviewed

A look at the world with John Green’s idiosyncratic view of the world.

Worldly

A regular review of international relations from Vox.

Guardian Audio Long Reads

A chance to catch up with The Guardian’s more cerebral journalism.

Reset

A look at the impact of technology on society.

Flash Forward

Part science fiction, part sociology looking at where our world is heading as well as reflecting on the present.

Stephanomics

A look at the world through the lens of economics from Stephanie Flanders.

Planet Money

Long running series from NPR taking a deep dive on economic issues through a consumer lens (US).

The Indicator from Planet Money

Bite sized spin off from Planet Money looking at different economic indicators through the week (US).

More or Less: behind the statistics

BBC show taking a critical look at statistics reported by the news media.

interview podcasts
The Ezra Klein Show

Interviews led by Vox founder Ezra Klein

Conversations with Tyler

Interviews led by Marginal Revolution author Tyler Cowen.

Longform Podcast

Interviews with high profile journalists from the team at Longform.

limited run series
Floodlines: the story of an unnatural disaster

A series looking at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans from the team at The Atlantic.

1619

A look at the lasting impact of slavery on contemporary American society from the New York Times.

Nice Try!

Avery Trufelman looks at different attempts to create utopian societies from around the world and across history.

Dolly Parton’s America

This series uses Dolly Parton as a filter to look at American culture wars.

The Missing Crypto Queen

BBC series where focus is more on greed and deceit rather than cryptography.

The Chernobyl Podcast

Series best consumed as a companion to HBO’s much loved Chernobyl programme.

Running from Cops

Series that pulls apart the Cops television series providing a valuable antidote to this pioneer in reality television.

Header image: Akumulator by Marcin Dudek at Edel Assanti gallery.