Is China trolling the West?

Who are the baddies these days? Globalisation has been tricky for Hollywood action screenwriters, whose stories need a source of villains that it’s culturally legitimate to hate. In earlier, more nationalistic eras, this role was fulfilled by either Nazis or Russians. But since the end of the Cold War, it’s been increasingly difficult to find an Other to serve as big screen bad guys without insulting potential customers somewhere.

Two recent Chinese films, Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) suggest that the Chinese movie industry has no such squeamishness about Official Foreign Villains. With the poster tagline “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated”, the films depict a muscular Chinese military hero seeing off drug lords and their American mercenaries, bringing life-saving vaccines to Africa and generally showing off superior Chinese technology, competence and morality. In contrast, America is degenerate, weak — or simply absent. As one character says: “Why are you calling the Americans? Where are they? It is a waste of time.” ...  Continue reading

Yesterday, the Beatles and why talent isn’t enough

Around this time last year, I came out of a press screening of Yesterday thinking that writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle had wasted a fantastic concept. What if you were the only person on Earth who remembered the Beatles? The film gave the dullest possible answer: you’d become a megastar by playing their songs but you’d feel a bit grubby about it. As I wrote at the time, “Not only does Curtis not answer the questions he has raised; he doesn’t even appear to notice he has asked them.” Now it turns out that a much more interesting take already existed: the original screenplay. ...  Continue reading

Simplicity is at the root of policy failures

At school, I always loved the moment in language lessons when you had to learn how to list your siblings. Thanks to my parents’ divorce and remarriages, I have a brother, a sister, a half-sister and three step sisters, which meant I got to show off my mastery of complicated words like stiefschwestern and hermanastras. I pitied the children with boring families and boring things to say like “je suis enfant unique.” What surprised me, though, was that even my best friends could never quite remember which of my sisters belonged to which step parent. We have infinite ability to understand the complexity of our own lives. But when we think about other people? The details get blurred, like the background in a Zoom video. ...  Continue reading

Why we remember wars but forget plagues

Like maybe 98% of writers around the world, I’ve spent lockdown compiling my own account of quarantine restrictions: from the terrible non-haircuts, to the chorizo-fuelled weight gain, to the way I think I probably have Covid-19, throughout the day, right until the moment I have my first gin — all of this set in the wider, weirder world of shuttered streets, abandoned to empty buses and racing motorbikes.

When I began these corona diaries I decided I should put the pandemic in context — by reading all the available literature relating to plagues and pestilence. So I went online to do some shopping — and to my great surprise, the anticipated spree took about five minutes. Because when it comes to Plague Lit, there isn’t much. ...  Continue reading

Our dangerous addiction to prediction

In Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi TV series Devs, Silicon Valley engineers have built a quantum computer that they think proves determinism. It allows them to know the position of all the particles in the universe at any given point, and from there, project backwards and forwards in time, seeing into the past and making pinpoint-accurate forecasts about the future.

Garland’s protagonist, Lily Chan, isn’t impressed. “They’re having a tech nerd’s wettest dream,” she says at one point. “The one that reduces everything to nothing — nothing but code”. To them, “everything is unpackable and packable; reverse-engineerable; predictable”. ...  Continue reading

Why the Zoom gloom has set in

As the theologian Paul Tillich defined the distinction, loneliness is the pain of being alone, solitude is the glory of being alone. Both solitude and socialising can be enjoyable when we have the freedom to choose; impose either condition and it gets old fast. The 19% of Britons self-sequestering solo no doubt long for companions more companionable than solitude, while those bunkering down with others might offer a limb in exchange for some more ‘me time’. Wuhan was only one of a dozen Chinese cities that saw a surge in divorce filings after lockdown restrictions were lifted.

Among the calculus of costs that governments are being asked to weigh in the face of the pandemic is the impact of social distancing measures on mental health. YouGov data show that almost a quarter of adults in the UK have felt lonely as a result of the coronavirus, and that feelings of loneliness have more than doubled during lockdown. Interestingly, despite their predilection for digital communication, the group most affected has been the young, with 44% of those surveyed aged 18-24 reporting having felt lonely. ...  Continue reading

The truth about ‘Obamagate’

With his re-election prospects precarious, Donald Trump and his Republican allies appear to see a short-term advantage in reviving “Russiagate” — the colloquial term for the multifaceted, years-long narrative centred on the allegation that Trump was guilty of conspiring or “colluding” with the Kremlin. Of course, no such conspiracy or “collusion” ever existed, as confirmed last year by the findings of Robert Mueller — the Special Counsel appointed to comprehensively investigate the allegation — but also by basic common sense, which is a commodity frequently lacking in US political and media circles. ...  Continue reading

Why do leaders flout lockdown rules?

Your pain is better than mine!’.  So runs the refrain of the number one song in Poland at the moment. It’s a song that has caused a ferocious political backlash. Sounding more like a folksy beer hall tune than protest anthem, it has proved an astonishing and immediate success, reaching number one in the influential Polish Radio Three charts last week and accumulating 10 million views on YouTube (no mean feat in a country of 40 million). But while the people are humming the tune, the ruling politicians certainly aren’t dancing to it.

The controversy stems from the song’s perceived criticism of Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s former Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party. Although formally only a backbencher, Kaczyński is said to wield the true political power in his Party; to the point where many consider him to be the country’s unofficial head of state. ...  Continue reading

Do any Covid-19 ‘cures’ actually work?

A couple of things happened in the past week that will have been of huge interest to a lot of people, for obvious reasons. One, a study on the impact of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, on Covid-19, was retracted. Two, another study, looking at the effect of the Ebola drug remdesivir on the virus was shown to have an extremely basic statistical error.

Those two drugs and their potential for treating the Covid-19 have been in the news a lot recently. Hydroxychloroquine in particular has received a lot of attention, because one Donald J Trump has apparently been taking it. The US president had tweeted in March about a different study, headed by the French scientist and Asterix character lookalike Didier Raoult, stating (capitalisation his): ...  Continue reading

The terrible threat of Wokenomics

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The phrase is not original to Marx, nor is the idea exclusive to Marxism. Yet, with remarkable economy, it captures the essence of the idealised communist society.

Of course, the reality of communism was best summed-up in the old Soviet-era quip — “the bosses pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” but let’s stick with the ideal — and what makes it so attractive.

More from this author
Are you ready for 'fully automated luxury communism'?

By Peter Franklin

The first half of the slogan suggests a society in which everyone does their bit; and the second half, that there’s always enough to go round. It all seems so fair, so reasonable — until, that is, you notice that what you put into the system (“from each…”) is unrelated to what you get out of it (“to each…”). That’s a problem because “ability” isn’t the only determinant of productivity. In fact, the real difference is made by effort, determination, creativity and risk-taking — all of which respond to reward. So if people don’t get rewarded for the all-important extras they put in, what happens to the economy? Nothing good. ...  Continue reading

Whose side is Labour on?

When Labour was obliterated at the ballot box in December — an outcome that a handful of us within its ranks saw coming a mile off, but which left most dumbstruck — it should have represented a moment of profound realisation within the party. It should have been the catalyst for an immediate recalibration of thinking and priorities.

The Party’s offer of a cocktail of liberal globalism mixed with a generous dash of revolutionary student activism — an unappealing blend of Lennon and Lenin, if you will — had alienated its once-loyal working-class base. Millions of its former supporters voted, instead, for an old Etonian in charge of a party which had spent the past decade imposing austerity on them and their communities. ...  Continue reading

Coronavirus has driven America mad

Donald Trump versus a virus, who wins?

Well Mr Trump of course. When it comes to a choice between political or medical approaches to the virus, Americans are overwhelmingly plumping for the politics. They afford, in that choice, the most basic of victories to their self-obsessed President. Whether they love Trump or hate him, it’s the emotional/political response that matters most to them — as it does to him.

Kool Aid has become bleach: and they are drinking it.

Even perfectly rational Americans have been caught up in a politicisation of virus facts. And so, if you know how anyone voted in 2016, you will also know whether they think opening beaches in Florida is a good thing, or whether an earlier lockdown would have saved lives. You think Chloroquine might be a good treatment? You voted to Make America Great Again. You think everyone should wear a mask? You’re a milquetoast San Francisco dreamer. ...  Continue reading