Photo by Jimmy Chan from Pexels

As the timeless adage goes: there is no bond on Earth stronger than that between man and donkey. This week’s feel good tale involves the emotional reunion of a Spaniard with his much adored pet donkey. Just when we think we’re aware of all the consequences of lock-down life… sometimes we just need to stop and smell the donkeys. 

Listen to the audio version of this week’s blog.

The Internet

Grab a Pizza the Profits

“The thing that doesn’t compute for me is how these companies continue to burn through a reality-warping amount of other people’s cash in a way that upends the basic economics of things like taxi service and food delivery and fail, intentionally, to turn a profit.”

I couldn’t really find a better way to sum-up some of the utter monstrosities the era of large-scale VC-backed ‘start-ups’ has created, such as Uber, WeWork and their ilk. But this time it’s DoorDash, the food delivery company.

An anonymous pizzeria owner discovered that DoorDash had mysteriously appeared on his business’ Google listing as a food delivery option, a common technique it uses in order to ‘persuade’ vendors to employ their services. Part of that technique is to undercut the prices that the vendor offers (such as selling his $24 pizza for $16), so as to take the customers away from the pizzeria’s own delivery service until they relent and sign up.

Because he was not signed up with DoorDash yet, that meant the food delivery service had to pay the owner $24 for each $16 pizza they sold, because, start-up math… DoorDash hadn’t reckoned on tangling with this plucky chap though, who realised he could order his own pizza to be delivered to himself and pocket $8 each time! Touche pizza-man, touche.

You know what they say, ethnic stereotyping sells… wait, what?!

Volkswagen’s marketing department shat-the-bed royally this week, when it released (and then immediately pulled) an advert for the new Golf. The advert featured a black man looking at the new Golf before a gigantic white hand appears and flicks him through the doorway of a cafe, whose name translates as “The Little Colonist”. I’m not sure ‘tone-deaf’ really covers this one, more like ‘overtly racist’. The company has promised a full investigation into how the advert came to be made and released. It’s reminiscent of this completely surreal advertisement for a Chinese detergent brand in which a black man is forced into a washing machine to be returned as an asian man… always surreal to remember that ethnic stereotyping isn’t something unique to white people, it’s perhaps just something they’ve mastered over centuries of practice rampaging across the globe. 

Ultimate Podcast Champion

Joe Rogan, the man behind the world’s most successful podcast, has signed an exclusivity deal with Spotify reportedly worth $100m. This says some pretty interesting things about the value that is perceived in the podcast world and Spotify’s strategy. It also sort of goes against the whole spirit of spirit of podcasts to restrict some content to a specific platform, and it’ll set a sad precedent if some podcasts are going to need a subscription to a certain service to access.

You know who else has a podcast? Us! Give it a go! Please.

The World

National Insecurity 

The Hong Kong constitution is called The Basic Law; a main author and pro-democracy activist Martin Lee was arrested back in April. The exertion of Chinese power and influence on the special administrative region of China has been gradually increasing as one would expect since the handover from the British to the Chinese in 1997. 

Hong Kong had been a British territory for 156 years after the First Opium War in 1842 i.e. when the British went to war with China because the Chinese were trying to do something about the opium addiction epidemic in their homeland. The Brit’s insisted on ‘Free Trade’… freedom to be addicted to opium… So the Brits were similar to the most aggressive drug dealer you’ve ever encountered, times 1,000, on all of the steroids, with an unmatched naval force. Opium grown in India was sold in China and those funds were used to procure silk, porcelain, tea and other luxury goods from the Chinese. When the Chinese understandably got fed up with this, the British killed a load of people and took a bunch of major strategic port cities. 

Thus Hong Kong was accelerated on its historical path, perhaps entirely in virtue of its geographical location connecting The Pearl River delta to the South China sea, of being an international hub. 

While the values of cosmopolitanism and inclusivity generally concurrent with cultural diversity are somewhat necessarily at odds with harsh authoritarianism; there is also an inescapable irony in the United State’s modern equivalent of an Opium War in Human Form – Secretary of state Mike Pompeo – warning of the “death knell” for Hong Kong’s freedom’s posed by the Security Law. 

The security law is a nebulously defined – presently draft level – bill from China with the aim of stopping HK from breaking away from China, preventing foreign interference and any attempts to undermine the Chinese… Remember those crazy scenes of students staging a medieval style siege at the HK Polytechnic University? The battle for civil liberties in Hong Kong rages on, as it has for hundreds of years. 

Sex Sells

You’ve probably already seen this, but we couldn’t let it slip by: FC Seoul inadvertently (*ahem*) filled its stands with sex dolls to resemble a crowd as it played its first match behind closed doors. The club claimed they were mannequins, and that they didn’t know the manufacturer made sex dolls. Which sounds believable until you consider that many of the dolls wore clothes advertising x-rated websites.

Small Pleasures

We really enjoyed reading this long piece from the NYT this week, taking a wander through locked-down Istanbul. Particularly, that the pâtissiers who make the wonderful treat of Baklava are treated as essential workers, in order that the city not be without a few little luxuries.

The US

What The HCQ?

In an apparently routine lapse of judgement the UK has been buying industrial quantities of a drug which they have, at best, dubious reasons to believe works. This is largely because a reality TV star turned head of the executive branch of the United States said it works – after a couple of things emerged on the internet describing how HCQ might help prevent severe COVID cases. A lack of evidence didn’t prevent states from rushing to spend millions on the drug.  

The key to clinical trials is that they’re conducted properly (i.e. randomly and in an appropriately controlled fashion) and that they are replicable. If it isn’t replicable, that’s probably because it isn’t a thing (cf. Replication Crisis). 

The thing that really grinds my gears here is an attitude of ‘oh it can’t do more harm than good’ – it bloody well can! That’s why clinical trials exist: you great big thundering wallop. 

Side note: most people saying this are not pharmacologists or otherwise biologically inclined (beyond, you know, being a thing capable of saying things).

Even besides the reasons we don’t usually take unproven drugs, there’s another awful thing going on here which is basically tantamount to saying ‘it’s not going to hurt me more than it might do me good’ and essentially disregarding the people with Malaria, Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis who need this medicine…

A hyped up demand for something increases its price – unless production is ramped up proportionally – there is a risk that some people (especially those in poorer countries) are going to get priced out of access to their very certainly needed drugs. 

All this to make wealthy westerners feel a little bit better on the chimeric hope of something good following months of government ineptitude and all but completely overwhelming fear and anxiety.

“In summary, this multinational, observational, real-world study of patients with COVID-19 requiring hospitalisation found that the use of a regimen containing hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine (with or without a macrolide) was associated with no evidence of benefit, but instead was associated with an increase in the risk of ventricular arrhythmias and a greater hazard for in-hospital death with COVID-19. These findings suggest that these drug regimens should not be used outside of clinical trials and urgent confirmation from randomised clinical trials is needed.”

The Lancet

Just Vibing It

The rental car company Hertz, once comfortably among the largest 500 companies in the United States, has filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2018 Hertz had almost 40,000 employees. On a personal level, I’m glad to see the firm go (if you ever rented a car from Hertz you’ll probably not miss the customer service equivalence of disturbing a mother racoon in a dumpster, all hisses and no well wishes), from a more holistic perspective I wish prosperity and happiness for these 10’s of thousands of soon to be jobless people. 

Hertz has been around for longer than I realized, being founded in 1918 in Chicago with a fleet of baker’s dozen Model T Ford’s. The idea that none of these cars were used for prohibition era booze runs is entirely fanciful… For another does of nostalgic whimsy, please enjoy some of the elegantly silly and surprisingly intransient company names of the era: Hertz used to be called Rent-a-Car Inc. before it was renamed Hertz Drive-Ur-Self System after John.D.Hertz (no relation to the unit of frequency) who purchased the company in 1923. 

So Hertz is likely gone to the winds of time, after various acquisitions from investment firms and an ultimate emphasis on money making with no apparent effort to acknowledge the personhood of those customers choosing to pay Hertz (*racoon hisses and runs away with your credit card*). Hertz had a bizarre combination of brand ambassadors through their most famous adverts over the decades, counting O.J.Simpson, Jamie Lee Curtis (the protagonist in John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween) and Arnold Palmer. The slogan “Go, O.J, Go!”, and associated quintessentially 70’s (the days of recording sessions with full bands for the sake of selling rental car companies are sadly behind us) advertisement images of O.J. running through an airport in a rush to rent his car,  would come to be associated with O.J.’s police chase following (alleged) murders. 

Please send bank details for many riches…   

Kayleigh McEnany shares Trump’s bank account & routing number with the national press… slow clap moment, to the beat of the leaking funds now. 

Bias awareness moment: I went looking into McEnany’s background fully expecting to immediately find nearly entirely discrediting nonsense. Alas, she’s had a successful career working as a producer for Fox News and a Political Analyst for CNN – while, of course, these are basically the same job – she’s certainly achieved reach and influence. She holds the position of 31st WhiteHouse press secretary at the age of 32, rather impressive. The sort of thing which really lights a fire under your arse when you’re in your mid-twenties…

The job description of a press secretary is essentially to manage the press. Make your boss look good and develop a narrative in your favour, easy peasy. The best way to do this job in the 21st century is to just say things which aren’t true. Like ‘He [Trump’ has always told the truth’ cf. Trump’s, now sadly relatively quotidian, racist conspiracy that Obama is a foreigner. Or scapegoating the WHO for America’s tremendous numbers of COVID deaths. 

It might seem like we’re talking about this every week but hey maybe it’s important. We have a decision to make in the coming months which determines the gnarliness of the following winter; take ownership – get our collective ducks in rows (or cats in baskets, as some eccentric people say) and mitigate the harsh times ahead (this looks like: effective contact tracing – phone calls work fine, targeted testing etc.) OR we can blame the WHO for being unduly coerced by Chinese funds. If you want to talk about foreing money manipulating supposedly impartial international organization – you might want to read up on the International Monetary Fund. Besides, the United States has intelligence organizations tasked with keeping decision makes up to speed with events potentially threatening to the status quo – they didn’t miss the novel coronavirus, the administration continued to trumpet expediency.

The UK

Who broke all the money?

Coronavirus has been to our lives, travel, wallets and wellbeing what a three foot thick reinforced concrete wall built across a motorway is to a small hatchback travelling at 90mph. Unless you’re Jeff Bezos. (Side-bar: Bezos is so wealthy he could end food poverty in the USA 5 times over and still be a multi-billionaire. In fact, he could actually end food poverty in the USA for around the same amount of money as coronavirus has made him. In fairness Bezos has donated $100m to food banks in the US, which seems like an obscenely generous gesture until you realise that it’s less than a thousandth of his net worth, which is forecast to hit $1 trillion by 2026. I digress…)

Covid-19 has also broken the money. All of it. It’s broken now. Not only were oil prices negative last month, but now the UK government has sold a negative-yield bond for the first time ever. That means investors can graciously lend the government money, and when the loan matures, they will get less back than they loaned. Yup. Broken.

The Bank of England is also not ruling out a negative base rate, which would effectively mean they would pay you to borrow money. It’s pretty unlikely that consumers would ever see that as getting paid to have a balance on their credit cards, but it’s an intervention designed to spur investment and spending to get the wheels of the economy turning again. It’s also not unforeseeable that you could end up getting charged for having a positive balance in your bank account. (Again, the end consumer tends to end up getting the shitty-end of the stick.) Interestingly, a decent chunk of Europe including the Eurozone has had a negative base rate for a number of years, not having fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.

The UK borrowed £62bn in April, which is a record figure and about 6 times what we borrowed this time last year. Because the interest rates are so low (and the UK has a reasonable credit rating), this is actually all pretty affordable for now. Slightly less reassuring was this part of the BBC’s explanation:

“There is a limit to how much the government can borrow, before interest payments become so great it can’t afford them. No-one knows quite where that limit is.”

BoE’s Golden Shower

Perhaps then we could bail ourselves out will all the Venezuelan gold we’re holding onto? “What’s that? We have $1bn of Venuezuelan gold in a giant Scrooge-Mcduckian vault into which the cabinet retire each evening to frolic in a money filled swimming pool?” I hear you ask. Well, yes. 

The Bank of England actually holds the gold reserves of many other central banks, due in part to the perceived stability of the UK (Ha) and the fact that gold has never been successfully stolen in it’s 320 year history (sounds like a challenge). In fact, if you’ve ever winced at the excruciating screeching as the central line pulls into Bank, that’s because the platform is curved in such a way as to avoid the aforementioned Scrooge-Mcduckian vault.

Anyway, we have a bunch of gold that we’re unwilling to release to the increasingly failed state as this would contravene financial sanctions, but as things really fall apart in Venezuela, they have launched a legal challenge. Venezuela propose that the gold be sold and the money transferred to the UN to help the humanitarian shitshow they’ve found themselves in.

“Bail-me-out, I’m Irish”

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is a total shit, there’s no two ways about it, I mean he recently called for additional security checks on Muslim men and called obese passengers “monsters”. But we all keep buying flights on his airline (very much the ‘Spirit Airlines’ of Europe) because they’re super cheap. Turns out though, that he’s also a massive hypocrite.

O’Leary has been more than a little critical of airlines taking government-backed loans, which he has styled “bailouts”, in particular Virgin Atlantic who he accused of “fleecing” the taxpayer. Virgin repeatedly applied for a £500m loan on commercial terms but were rejected every time, whilst Easyjet and Wizz Air took £600m apiece, and British Airways took £900m from the Spanish government. Now Ryanair has decided it does actually want a bite of the pie, quietly taking a £600m government backed loan for itself. (Perhaps then they can pay me back for the 6 motherflippin cancelled flights that they owe me a refund for that they’re promising “within six months”?!)

Where he perhaps does have a point though, is the colossal actual bailouts of major European flag-carriers like Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, who are set to take $10bn and $10.8bn respectively from their host nations. Ryanair is threatening to sue Germany, France and the Netherlands for breaking their own state-aid rules.

Told you so

Let’s not go into UK testing for the nth week in a row, but we would just like to point you to this revelation from The Telegraph this week that many coronavirus tests have been being counted twice in order to reach the testing total. Nice that a well-funded, long-established newspaper with hundreds of journalists has caught up with us (two non-journalists doing this for the fun of it) after we pointed this out on 2nd May. (In case you missed it, the government also arrived at their PPE numbers in April by counting each glove individually, rather than as is conventional: in pairs.)

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

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