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What I’ve been reading this month

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Will Storr is one of my favourite journalists. He writes for outlets like Wired and The Guardian, usually on science stories, and often on health-related stuff. His is a byline that almost guarantees I’ll enjoy the article. This month, I finally got round to reading Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. This is an illustrated discussion of cognitive bias, backed up by astounding and revealing investigative journalism. Storr takes no prisoners, dissecting the claims of ‘skeptics’ as forensically as those of with outlandish beliefs. Heretics is entertaining, thoughtful, and genuinely insightful. It is one of my favourite books of the year so far. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. Saturday, which I read this month, ranks among my favourite of his books. Like all the McEwan novels I’ve read, it is heavy on keenly observed description and close examination of human nature. Saturday tells the story of a particularly eventful day in the life of middle-aged neurosurgeon. It is particularly notable for the astonishingly accurate portrayal of the surgical world – I think this book captures surgical patter and medical thought patterns with more authenticity than any other fiction I’ve ever read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve been having a bit of a Jon Ronson moment lately, having been particularly impressed with some of his newer books. This month, I caught up with Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries – a compendium of articles from periodicals and other relatively short-form bits of investigative journalism – and The Men Who Stare at Goats – the book that really put Ronson on the map. While both of these were perfectly good reads, I didn’t enjoy either of them quite as much as the later books. Reading Lost at Sea through from cover to cover is probably not the best way to treat it, as there are only so many consecutive short stories I can take. The Men Who Stare at Goats felt like a collection of amusing anecdotes of military absurdity that didn’t dive deeply enough into the underlying reasons for that absurdity prevailing. (Lost at Sea: Amazon | Goodreads; The Men Who Stare at Goats: Amazon | Goodreads)

Luke Harding’s extraordinary investigation into the Linvinenko affair, A Very Expensive Poison, is one of the most arresting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Harding gives a clear, detailed and compelling account of murder by the Russian state – including all of the cack-handed bungling which humanises the story and makes it that much more horrific. He also dives deeply into the investigation of the murder, and the judgement of the subsequent public enquiry. A must read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve long thought that the premise of the Dexter TV show had promise – an exploration of ‘just’ murder through a serial killer with a conscience – but I couldn’t ever really get into it (not least because Michael C Hall will always be David Fisher to me). I picked up Darkly Dreaming Dexter on a whim to see if Jeff Lindsay’s source material was more engaging, and really enjoyed it. The plot was silly (psychic visions abound), but it was tightly written, and had a dash of dark humour that brought much needed levity. It was a fun read for a couple of hours or so, and I’ll certainly pick up the next in the series. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Nemesis is the fourth book in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, which I started reading in January. It’s a pacey, multi-layered instalment which I raced through. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Redbreast: I thought the historical portions of The Redbreast added something extra, and the series of false revelations at the end of Nemesis was a bit wearing after a while. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it, and look forward to picking up The Devil’s Star some time soon. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,307th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

There seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment for people writing little blog posts each month talking briefly about books they have been reading. I always enjoy reading these posts, and often pick up interesting book recommendations from them – so here’s my own attempt for May.

Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable is a book about disasters, like plane crashes or hotel fires, profiling those who survive. It’s a bit heavy-handed with emotional anecdotes and fairly vague theories of what makes a “survivor”, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. It offers some genuine and unexpected insights, and makes a compelling argument for Governments and officials to worry less about public panic. (Amazon | Goodreads)

A lot of my friends have previously read and recommended Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but I’ve held off until now. This is a book profiling the rise of “public shaming” in the context of social media. There’s been so much written about ‘cyber-bullying’ and the perils of social media that I thought I’d struggle to get through a whole book regurgitating the same stuff. I should have known better. Like most of Jon Ronson’s writing, it’s really about people and the human condition, but viewed through the lens of a particular topic. As always, Jon Ronson brings interesting fresh perspective and insight to the topic by approaching it on the human level. Like most of my friends – I found it eye-opening and totally absorbing. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On that basis, I also read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test this month. Jon Ronson’s book about psychiatry and psychiatric services is another I’ve avoided for a long time: I was put off by the title, which suggested to me that the book was going to be very light-touch on science. Disappointingly, I was right. I enjoyed reading the stories, but extremes were too often discussed as though they were reflective of norms. I think many people would come away from reading this book with a very distorted view of psychiatry, which is a bit of a shame. The particular cases discussed are, though, very engaging. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve always enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s columns, but have never quite got round to reading his books. So this month, I thought I’d try Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the power of snap decisions taken within two seconds. I was a bit disappointed. It was weirdly superficial and inconsistent: the main message seemed to be that snap judgements based on training and experience are often right (except when they’re wrong), and that those based on emotion and prejudice are often wrong (except when they’re right). There’s no denying that Malcolm Gladwell writes fantastic prose, but – to my mind – this book just didn’t hang together as a coherent whole. (Amazon | Goodreads)

William Boyd’s Booker-prize nominated Any Human Heart didn’t do much for me – given the esteem within which Any Human Heart is held by many, this may say more about me than the book. I just found most of it dull, and the narrator deeply unlikeable. But then, I rarely enjoy this sort of historical fiction, so maybe I should have known to give this one a miss. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve been reading Jo Nesbo’s series of Harry Hole books this year, and this month reached The Redbreast. This is the third in the series, and the first in the famed Oslo Sequence of books (the first two were set in Australia and Thailand respectively). Harry Hole is the classic troubled police officer with unorthodox methods. In The Redbreast, he attempts to prevent an assassination attempt which has its roots in the Second World War. This was a really gripping, page-turning read – and a big step up in clarity and pace from the first two in the series. I really enjoyed this. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,306th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






Is the Government misleading people over Junior Doctors’ Contracts?

When people accuse politicians of lying, I generally roll my eyes. Almost a decade ago, I laid into my local MP for sending me an inaccurate letter. Guido Fawkes picked it up and called the poor guy a moronic liar. The episode was a whiny hurling of personal insults that achieved nothing of value. I still slightly regret it.

And these days, too often people choose to quote politicians out of context, wilfully misunderstand their position, or turn slips of the tongue into conspiracy theories. I have no interest in any of that.

And yet. And yet. And yet, I have noticed a lot of inconsistency in Government statements on the Junior Doctors’ Contract dispute. I’m not accusing anyone of lying. I’m not even accusing anyone of being deliberately misleading. I’m just highlighting statements which, as far as I can see, don’t match one another.

Look through the list yourself. Check out the sources. Draw your own conclusions.


There will be no imposition.

Source: Government statement in response to petition, 21 March 2016

There has been no change whatsoever in the Government’s position since my statement to the House in February … We are imposing a new contract, and we are doing it with the greatest of regret.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 18 April 2016

Is it really the Government’s position that “no imposition” and “we are imposing a contract” mean the same thing?


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No trainee working within contracted hours will have their pay cut.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 11 February 2016

No one will see a fall in their income if they are working the legal hours.

Source: Ben Gummer (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health), speaking in Commons debate, 21 March 2016

Is it the Government’s position that “contracted hours” and “legal hours” mean the same thing? Or did Gummer choose to to undersell the Government’s own guarantee on 21 March?


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It will actually cost us more. If you’re going to ask more doctors to work at weekends, you’re going to have to pay more.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, on The Andrew Marr Show, 7 February 2016

[We have agreed] the cost neutrality of the contract

Source: Jeremy Hunt, in letter to Professor Dame Sue Bailey, 5 May 2016

Does the government consider “cost neutrality” and “it will actually cost us more” to have the same meaning?


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What we do need to change are the excessive overtime rates that are paid at weekends. They give hospitals a disincentive to roster as many doctors as they need at weekends.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 13 October 2015

What we’re actually doing is giving more rewards to people who work the nights and the more frequent weekends.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, on The Andrew Marr Show, 7 February 2016

Was the Secretary of State mis-speaking when he said that the contract reduced excessive overtime rates at weekends, or when he said that the new contract increased them?


Junior Doctors Contract March London - 03


Certain features of the new contract will adversely impact on those who work part-time, and a greater proportion of women than men work part-time; women, but not men, take maternity leave and some aspects of the new contract have certain adverse impacts regarding maternity; certain features of the new contract will potentially adversely impact on those who have responsibilities as carers.

Source: Government Equity Analysis of new contract, published 31 March 2016

Shorter hours, fewer consecutive nights and fewer consecutive weekends make this a pro-women contract that will help people who are juggling important home and work responsibilities.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 18 April 2016

Is it the Government’s position that it got its own Equality Assessment wrong when it concluded that it discriminated against women?


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No doctor will ever be rostered consecutive weekends.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 18 April 2016

Good practice guidance will be published in the near future to support employers, including guidance on rotas and scheduling, and will make clear that, where possible, routine rostering of consecutive weekends should be avoided.

Source: NHS Employers, 31 March 2016

Does the Government consider that “ever” and “where possible” mean the same thing?


Doctors put on masks and observed three minutes' silence.


We will make the NHS more convenient for you. We want England to be the first nation in the world to provide a truly 7 day NHS.

Source: Page 38 of the Conservative Party Manifesto, 2015

There is concern that the government may want to see all NHS services operating 7 days. Let me be clear: our plans are not about elective care.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 25 April 2016

Were the Conservatives up front about not including elective care in their plan to make the NHS more convenient with a truly 7 day service?


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We have a plan for every stage of your life
Source: First line of the first page of the Conservative Party Manifesto, 2015

The first line on the first page of this Government’s manifesto said that if elected we would deliver a seven-day NHS.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, speaking in Commons debate, 25 April 2016

Will Hunt correct the Parliamentary record for misquoting his own Party’s manifesto?


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It is now not possible to change or delay the introduction of this contract.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, in letter to Dr Johann Malawana, 19 April 2016

We will pause introduction of the new contract for five days from Monday should the Junior Doctors’ Committee agree to return to talks.

Source: Jeremy Hunt, in letter to Professor Dame Sue Bailey, 5 May 2016

Is Hunt claiming to have achieved the impossible? Or was was his earlier statement erroneous?


Images used under by or by-sa licence as appropriate. Sources (in order of appearance): Ted Eytan, Roger Blackwell, University of Salford Press Office, Garry Knight, Ted Eytan (again), Garry Knight (again), NHS Confederation, Roger Blackwell (again). Thank you all!

This 2,305th post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Rants.






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