Money, Newsletters and Buffoons

Why did I sign up for this again? Why the rich are so mean.

Do you ever get a newsletter pop into your inbox and think… what on earth is this? When did I sign up? (Perhaps you are feeling that right now).

There’s something about the newsletter form that catches me off guard. Perhaps because it arrives in my inbox, nestled among bills and notifications and messages I still need to reply to. Unlike a book, I don’t carve out space for it. It arrives when my mind is on something else, and takes me a moment to place it. I’m not always entirely sure what the writer wants from me. I am suspicious. Is it an ad? An attempt to upsell me to something? Or is it for entertainment? Do they just want my attention for a few minutes. If so: is it entertaining enough to warrant my time. It is a push not a pull.

So I find my response to newsletters varies, depending on the mood I’m in when I receive them. Sometimes I’m ready for some ramblings and links to articles. Other times there’s nothing worse than yet another email to “deal with”. Even if “dealing” with it means reading and enjoying it.

All of this is to say: welcome new subscribers. I hope this email catches you in the right mood for today’s thoughts and links. And I hope I haven’t accidentally put you into a suspicious mindset. This email is at the entertainment end of the spectrum, not the upsell end.

I think about “forms” quite a bit (I should specify I mean literary forms, but I suppose I also mean web forms as well. One way or another, I’m often thinking about forms.) Whether we want it to or not, the form that we use changes the thing we do. If this weren’t an email newsletter but an article, or a tweet, or something else entirely, it would end up being quite different.

Perhaps fittingly, then, Substack is in the news again. There’s “a lot of drama for a company that mostly just makes it easy to email large groups for free,” the New York Times says, and it has a point. Perhaps this is all just marketing. A smart bit of PR to create brand recognition for a company that doesn’t do anything that clever. But I also wonder if it’s a sort of form anxiety. Substack has made the email newsletter cool, and right we aren’t quite sure what can be done with that form.

I like browsing through email newsletters and seeing how different people have used them. There are the ones that are essentially an article sent via email, the ones that are a series of links, the ones that are ads for the real product and the ones that are like having a conversation with a friend. Some contain image. Some have a very clear structure with heading and sections. Some are just links.

But I rarely stick with them for long. I think it’s the form again. Or perhaps it’s my attention span. I wonder if they should go in seasons like a good TV series. Then I’d be able to look forward to them for a few weeks and not get bored of a permanent email commitment. Or perhaps they should drop all in one go, like a Netflix event. All the links and prose all at once. I have, I realize as I suggest this, re-invented the book.


That all said, onwards to a load of links First, three stories of mine from the last couple of months.

In The Startup, How Much Can You Do With Siri, a piece about how remarkably poor Siri still is:

I’m struck by the challenges we face in the 21st Century. When we wrote phone numbers in spiral-bound address books, we didn’t have to worry the pages would interpret the phone number as integers and round them to avoid floating point issues. In 2021, our lives may be more luxurious, but there are more minor inconveniences.

In Index, The Harrowing Story of Every Software Rewrite. Talking of forms, this was a more unusual piece - essentially a short story about software development in the second person. Someone remarked that they read it as a sit-com about software development, which I was quietly pleased about:

“Oh, no,” the head of engineering says, stepping in, “they’re talking about the old shitty si…” he catches your eye, “I mean, the legacy site, not the new build.”

“Oh man,” the junior developer says, “that’s a right pain.”

“Yeah,” the head of engineering agrees, “it’ll hit timelines a lot. Context switching like that has a really high cognitive overhead, you know.”

The application you’ve rolled out to thousands of customers, which has been running for years, gradually enhanced and improved, with only minor tweaks needed here and there, the money from which pays all your salaries? That site is now “the old shitty site.”

In The Shadow, Electric Cars are Like Driving Cars From the Future, In the Past:

Driving an electric car is like driving a computer. They are all digital screens and electric whirs. They even have a battery percentage icon right in the middle of the dashboard. I feel at home with this. Sure, the cables are fatter, cost several hundred pounds, and you have to plug them into special sockets, but that’s really not so different from new MacBooks.


Elsewhere

In New York Magazine, an anonymous article by someone who became rich after the company they worked at went public.

I’d say my dogs’ lifestyle has changed more than mine. They’ve gotten a food upgrade, a special prescription diet that’s low sodium. It’s $70 a bag. The average pet food at the supermarket is $15. And they’re on supplements: a fish oil, a probiotic, one for joint health.

I have a vague fascination with money. The way having it changes us and not having it imprisons us. But also the way it allows a much greater level of inequality that humans would otherwise be able to create.

Warren Buffet once said his key realization as a child was that not all work is rewarded evenly, and I often think how little wealth is deserved. The same jobs in different companies can be paid at hugely different rates, and even in the same company, salaries can be inconsistent, let alone between different levels. It’s become passé to comment on the unjustness of senior executive remuneration. But still the unjustness continues. One way to get away with injustices it seems is to hold out until everyone is bored of talking about them.

I found this piece fascinating as I do any story about money. We think money changes us, but it doesn’t really. It might take away worries and stresses, but what it leaves behind is still just us.


Continuing the theme of money, in The Atlantic, an extract from Michael Mechanic’s latest book: Research Proves It: There’s No Such Thing as Noblesse Oblige:

Piff had observed that people were studying the causes and effects of poverty ad nauseam, but nobody was addressing the questions he wanted to ask. Namely: What are the social and psychological ramifications of being on top of the economic food chain, of occupying positions of privilege? Wealth-related differences in attitudes and behavior are particularly important wherever the rich have an outsize sway over politics and policy.

This piece summarises what we all instinctively know: having a lot of money makes you selfish and less empathetic. I feel like I’ve read this many times before, so as fascinating as this piece is (and I plan to read the book when it comes out) I can’t help also feeling a bit empty. We know that inequality is bad. And yet there’s nothing we can do to stop it.


From the Yale University Press Blog, the rise of the term “buffoon” in relation to politicians:

What, then, are the advantages of political buffoonery? Off-hand, considering Amin’s career, I can think of at least five: 

1) It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon. 
2) It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.” 
3) It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters). 
4) It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic. 
5) It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.

Mark Leopold, a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Sussex, makes the point that “buffoonery” almost has a physical element as well:

Thin men are accused of being buffoons almost as infrequently as women. President Biden has been quoted as calling Boris Johnson the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump.” Why “physical”? The sheer size of Johnson, Trump, and indeed Idi Amin surely must have something to do with why they are all called buffoons, but it is hard to see exactly what.

“Buffoon”, I notice, is remarkably close to “balloon”, a sort of playful, archaic, jolly sound. It’s more affable than “clown” or “jester”. We like buffoons. Although if we can take anything away from this piece it’s perhaps this: beware a dictator in buffoon’s clothing.


Until next time, friends:

Yours,

Simon