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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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What I’ve been reading this month

As the daylight has begun to stretch into the evening, I’ve read seven books this month.


Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is Ishiguro’s recently published novel set in the near future (or perhaps an alternative present). It is narrated by an “AF” called Klara, a solar powered artificially intelligent robot of sorts who is bought to be a companion for an unwell child, Josie.

Like all of the Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I absolutely loved this. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro makes deft use of science fiction themes to explore universal experiences and emotions, and avoids getting drawn into the “science” bit (we don’t really know what sort of technology powers AFs, for example). This novel explores all sorts of questions: the universal aspects of the life course; the nature of religion; the meaning of service; the lifelong impact of childhood inequality; the fundamentals of the human condition; the meaning of friendship and love. As with his other novels, Ishiguro explores all of this gently rather than forcefully.

Honestly, to me Ishiguro is one of those authors who could spin a thoughtful and spellbinding novel out of a telephone directory. 

This was brilliant.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This first part of Obama’s Presidential memoir covers his political life up to the point of election to the Presidency, and his first term through to May 2011. For me, it was a Christmas present from mum and dad.

It is nothing short of exceptional. Obama has a rare talent for prose that is both readable and elegant: quite apart from his extraordinary experience, he is a truly gifted writer. He deftly combines everything from personal anecdote to political theory and from introspective reflection to lessons on statecraft to essentially spin a really gripping yarn, which also provides deep insight into what it is like to be a President of the United States.

Obama’s much-expressed and clearly deeply-felt frustration with the Republican Party and the early ascendency in the political sphere of Trump portends a rather darker second volume. As I will definitely be reading it, I’ll be interested to see whether that can be as inspiring and hopeful as this volume, despite the different circumstances.


Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek

Published in April last year (which we now know to be fairly early on in our collective experience of COVID-19), this is Žižek’s short (146 pages) philosophical reflection on the pandemic.

It was clearly written quickly, and include things that would usually be very irritating (some long quotes from Wikipedia, for example). However, I really enjoyed looking at something which has consumed my work and personal life for more than a year from a different perspective.

I found it fun and refreshing.


On Connection by Kae Tempest

Published last year, this is an extended reflection (144 pages) by poet Kae Tempest on the importance of “connection” which is defined as “the feeling of landing in the present tense. Fully immersed in whatever occupies you, paying close attention to the details of experience.” This sounds similar to “mindfulness” yet Tempest’s discussion seems to have an added element of human connection to it, and recognises the importance of creativity in bringing people together and finding common ground.

I came across this through some Faber Members marketing, and I found it insightful, perceptive and timely. I hadn’t come across Tempest’s work previously, but will seek it out having read this. It was well worth the small time commitment given its short length, particularly to gain a new perspective on the impact of covid-19.


The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin

This is the fourth I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s five-book FUTURES series published last year, which is a modern day attempt to follow in the footsteps of the 1920s series of To-Day and To-Morrow essays.

Levitin’s 60-page essay concerns the future of seduction, though is really mostly about dating in the modern world. As Wendy and I have been together for the better part of 17 years, the world of dating apps has really passed both of us by. I remember learning the hard way that it had passed into the mainstream after making a comment to a colleague about it being “geeky” about a decade ago, only to hear that she had met her husband online.

All of which is to say… this book was an education. Whoever knew the difference between Bumble and Tinder? Who knew that most people just chat on these services? Who knew that “progressing to WhatsApp” was a stage of a relationship?

I’m not sure I really needed to know any of this, but it was eye-opening!


Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces

This is Caleb Klaces’s 2019 ‘experimental’ novel combining prose and poetry. It concerns a young couple moving to the countryside following the birth of their first child, with the father taking on much of the childcare responsibility.

To me, the experimental form (shifting between history, biography, poetry, stream of consciousness, memory, and probably other things too) was a bit beyond me, and a bit of a barrier. This is probably in part because this isn’t the sort of thing I usually read. There were bits of observation and philosophy that made me think in this novel, but the whole just wasn’t up my street.


The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers

I picked up Justin Myers’s novel as it was recommended somewhere or other as a good option for those who enjoyed Exciting Times, which I read and recommended last summer. From my perspective, this was a bad recommendation as I felt the two books had very little in common.

Exciting Times is a literary love story filled with warmth and wit, whose central character happens to be bisexual. The Magnificent Sons is a modern melodramatic Bildungsroman focussed on a bisexual man coming to terms with his sexuality. The very positive reviews for The Magnificent Sons speak to the fact that it is an accomplished work, but it’s really just not up my street.

I was a little distracted by poor editing (the relocation of the Canadian National Tower to Seattle was one of the less forgivable errors) and some of the idioms were a little too wild for me (emotional pain that “hurts harder than Lego underfoot” or a character “retreating to their mental holodeck”). I had also expected more reflection on and development of the fraternal relationship given the title. But the real point is that I probably noticed these “flaws” because this book just wasn’t my kind of thing, rather than them being major issues. This sort of dialogue-driven sentimental story contained mostly within a small friendship group just doesn’t do it for me.

But, by all accounts, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll probably like it a lot, so please don’t let this put you off.

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29 things I learned in February 2020

1: Newcastle in County Down is nice, but I still prefer Newcastle upon Tyne.


2: Belfast International was ranked as the worst UK airport for passenger satisfaction in 2019, which feels reasonable.


3: My optician offered me “retinal screening” using optical coherence tomography, claiming that “the only downside is that it costs £25”. Cost is never the only downside to medical screening. I declined, but didn’t argue.


4: Someone has printed a map of China and put it on my desk. Hubei seems further East than the last time I looked. I’m pretty certain it’s my memory that’s faulty rather than the map.


5: Co-ordinating annual leave between Wendy and me isn’t easy.


6: After a 48hr run as Incident Director with an Incident Coordination Centre running, I can confirm with certainty: it’s exhausting. National colleagues doing longer stints with bigger ICCs under more pressure have some serious stamina.


7: The engineering challenges for high speed rail lines are more interesting to me, as a lay reader, than I would have imagined.


8: Americans report that they go to libraries almost twice as frequently as cinemas, averaging close to one library visit a month. I last visited a library two days ago and last saw a film in a cinema thirteen months ago.


9: “Amtrak recently announced that it’s getting rid of tablecloths all together because research suggested that millennials didn’t respond well to linen.” As far as I can tell, Amtrak hasn’t said anything about millennials’ response to linen, and the story about removing dining cars is four months old, so the lesson is that columnists can find straw men in the strangest places sometimes.


10: Boris Johnson’s government has started examining the feasibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Anyone mentioning the offshore engineer’s view that it “is about as feasible as building a bridge to the moon”, or Johnson’s previous Garden Bridge fiasco, or indeed his proposals for a bridge between England and France will probably just be branded a doubter, a doomster or a gloomster.


11: It has a name, and that name is covid-19. I didn’t hear the press conference, but assumed ‘covid’ rhymed with ‘Ovid’ (ɒ); others at work are pronouncing it more like ‘cove-id’ (əʊ). It’s the culture war over French vs Latin pronunciation of “difficile” all over again.


12: I’m currently reading Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and my addled mind is getting confused between things that happened in the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and things that are happening now in the covid-19 outbreak. There is a surprising amount of overlap.


13: The M96 is unique, and some people get very excited by a road which I use regularly and to which I’ve never paid a great deal of attention.


14: Infrared thermometer guns, currently much-photographed in connection with covid-19, are not always terribly accurate, especially outside of controlled clinical settings.


15: Twenty of our Prime Ministers went to the same school.


16: The number of ministers in the UK government is capped at 109, but Governments frequently find ways around that limit (mostly by appointing people without paying them). For comparion: in 1900, there were 60 ministers; in 2010, India had 68, South Africa 66, and Canada 63. I’m sure every one of our UK ministers is appointed based on merit and public service value, and not as mechanism to force people to vote with the Government line.


17: “Since the Lunar New Year holidays concluded, many pupils in Hong Kong have been required to attend lessons via video conference. But some have become a bit too comfortable with the home-learning set-up, leading schools to introduce a strict “no pyjama” policy.” It’s interesting to ponder how outbreak control measures can influence social norms. Will we all have dress codes for working from home in future? I suppose it seems likely as videoconferencing continues to become more common.


18: The Brit Awards, which haven’t really felt relevant in years, can still unexpectedly deliver immensely powerful moments.


19: I eat meat. It’s not a strong part of my personal identity in the way it seems to be for some people, and I’ll happily eat vegan dishes when the fancy takes me (hello vegatsu). Nonetheless, I eat animal products every day, and I thoroughly enjoyed being challenged by reading an excellent Michael Huemer essay from which I learned more about the libertarian counter-arguments to intensive farming of animals: “If animal suffering were even one thousandth as important as (qualitatively similar) human suffering, factory farming would still be among the most serious problems in the world today. (Imagine that 74 million humans were being tortured in factory-farm-like conditions each year. Unquestionably, this would be among the world’s greatest problems.)”


20: “Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’”


21: “Kinks and Convolutions” by James Lasdun in The LRB sold me on the book it was reviewing and also introduced me to the word “concupiscence” (Eager or vehement desire; in theological use, the coveting of ‘carnal things’, desire for the ‘things of the world’.)


22: In London, some people have now turned “entire new-build apartment blocks into de facto hotels designed for the short-term rental market”.


23: I’ve never thought before about how the basics of computer programming rely on a knowledge of English.


24: Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet has made me realise that I use emoji as either “emblematic” or “illustrative”. I like it when books make me realise something about my own behaviour that I hadn’t fully noticed myself!


25: I’d never really thought about the association between certainty of opinion (“everyone knows Tories are scum”) and decisiveness in terms of action planning (“I know exactly what I need to do here”) until I read this Diamond Geezer post. I now see that they are both facets of decision making, but I hadn’t previously spotted that thread between things that I have previously thought of as distinct attributes of character.


26: I’ve been musing for a while that use of the word “skyrocketed” to mean “increased quickly” has been increasing quickly as compared to use of the word “rocketed” for the same meaning. I initially thought this was misuse of “skyrocket” which I’ve always taken to mean “destroy” or “blow up”, a near synonym of “torpedo”: amusing because its almost the opposite of the sense in which people are intending it to be taken. But then I came to think it was used too commonly to be an error, and thought that it was perhaps an Americanism. The OED reveals that I’m right in one sense: use of “skyrocket” to mean “increase abruptly or rapidly” is marked as being of US origin, while “rocket” to mean “increase suddenly and very rapidly” appears to be of less certain origin. But I’m more wrong than I am right: “skyrocket” to mean “destroy utterly” is marked as rare and obsolete, which makes me wonder where I picked it up from in the first place.


27: Laura Spinney’s brilliant book taught me that the respiratory tract of pigs is generally vulnerable to influenza viruses which affect the gastrointestinal tract of birds and influenza viruses which affect the respiratory tract of humans. Hence, swine are often the sources of recombinant strains of influenza which can cause large outbreaks in humans.


28: This is hardly an original observation, but I was nonetheless dumbfounded at The Louvre to witness the neverending line of people spending the entirety of their allotted 30 seconds or so in front of the Mona Lisa with their back to it, the better to take a selfie. If Dadaism says changing the context of an object can transform it into art, does changing how people interact with the Mona Lisa transform it into a different artwork?


29: “A writer in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 proposed charging a ‘sin tax’ on novels (like those on alcohol and cigarettes today). Taxing them—but not ‘books of real utility’—would bring in valuable government revenue and encourage better reading habits.”

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