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31 things I learned in August 2020

1: “Just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage. [But] we should scrutinize all large institutions, whether they’re companies, government agencies, or non-profits. [Amazon’s] responsibility is to make sure we pass such scrutiny with flying colors.”


2: Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, published on behalf of the Home Office, ‘approved by ministers’ and retailing at £12.99, is ‘the only official handbook on which the Life in the UK test is based’. Last week the Historical Association published an open letter – signed so far by more than 350 historians – pointing out that the handbook is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’.” I remember a lot of fuss about this when the test and guide were first launched, but as the noise had subsided I unthinkingly assumed that it had just been quietly and gradually fixed. It seems that’s not true. I’ve tried three online practice tests and, while the content did seem a little like a pub quiz, I did pass all three, which clearly makes me a better citizen than the New Statesman team.


3: Covid has converted a lot of people to online food shopping, my parents included. It will be interesting to see whether the days of the trolley are over for good, or whether people will return to supermarkets in the future.


4: “All roads lead back to Barnard Castle mate. That’s what f**ked it.”


5: I still look young enough to have my ID checked when ordering alcohol…at least at Yo Sushi.


6: The commandments are not consistently numbered: in both Judaism and Protestantism, the seventh commandment is “thou shalt not commit adultery,” but that’s the sixth commandment in Catholicism. (And only 21 years late, I finally get the “joke” about the ordering of commandments in the first episode of The West Wing.)


7: I’ve been in two notable public toilets (!) in the last couple of days, which seem to me to be making steps towards greater inclusivity. One, in Geneva, had a tampon dispenser in the men’s. The other, in London, was a single combined facility for all genders and abilities (with individual cubicles including accessible facilities and baby changing spaces all off a central hand-washing atrium).


8: Major Harold Hering was sacked for asking a sensible question.


9: A load of genes have been renamed with an eye on how Microsoft Excel processes their names.


10: From a delightfully odd piece of writing in the FT by Judy Joo, I learned of Hugh Hefner’s “FU pea”.


11: Anything can be a temporary roundabout if it tries hard enough.


12: Alice Wickenden’s essay in the Summer 2020 edition of the Brixton Review of Books (not online) was moving and powerful. It made me think in detail for the first time about the particular and awful trauma of being raped by a friend and working out how to live with that.


13: New desk, new office, same job.


14: Some days are just exhausting.


15: In 2012, the Conservative mantra was to “streamline existing health improvement and protection bodies” into a single agency. In 2020, Conservatives complain that “instead of having an organisation that is constantly on alert for pandemics you have an organisation that has been concentrating on prevention of ill-health.”


16: “PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have. There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last seven years. We should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system in which they are but one cog.”


17: It’s possible for the Government to mess up A-Level grades more than anyone expected, despite having the Scottish experience to learn from in advance.


18: “Ministers cut PHE’s budget from £397.9m in 2015 to just under £300m this year and cut the public health grant that local councils in England receive by 22% over the same period.”


19: I’m less good at leaving work at a reasonable hour now that I work in a building that opens 24/7 rather than one that slings me out at 7pm.


20: “The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.”


21: A conductor’s “baton has to be a certain length based on how tall the person is. Ideally it’s balanced, it should sit on the finger, so when you go to make a gesture the stick moves in a coordinated fashion. A great baton is one you don’t really feel.”


22: “At the end of June, the navy announced that the marines were getting new uniforms, which the Times described as ‘hi-tech’ because the material includes a small amount of spandex.”


23: “A typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food.” And ours isn’t even set to the right time.


24: “It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing.”


25: Perhaps a year ago, I had a very stimulating conversation with a friend and colleague about unconscious bias in medical education. It made me realise that it was something to which I hadn’t given enough thought, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since. I’ve made a few changes in response to stuff I’ve read on the topic, the most noticed of which has been soliciting anonymous feedback via my work email signature—an idea I brazenly purloined from a friend who works in tech but who struggled with essentially the same question. I initially used Admonymous, but then moved to a custom-made single-question survey using my employer’s survey platform after (probably needlessly) worrying myself about information governance. Now, I seem to be reading more and more about the importance of curiosity in making accurate assessments about the world, like this article by Sanne Blauw. And really, failure to interpret the world accurately is at the heart of unconscious bias. So now I’m musing on how I can be more curious, which seems hard in the time-pressured conditions everyone in healthcare recognises. Food for thought.


26: Just like many smart watches today, the first digital watches didn’t have enough power to continuously display the time.


27: Eighteen months after my first visit to the Sagrada Família, this David Cerqueiro profile of Etsuro Sotoo—a sculptor who has worked on the building for more than four decades—gave me a slightly different appreciation for it.


28: Perfect Crime is the longest running play in New York’s history, performed eight times a week since 1987. Catherine Russell (who sounds a bit of a character) has played the lead in all but four performances.


29: “In a typical shopping trip, 60-80% of the time is spent in ineffective wandering, as customers deviate from a path that would be the shortest route to obtain the goods they purchase.”


30: Forensic botany is a thing. I know it features endlessly in the Sherlock Holmes books, but I didn’t know it happened in real life.


31: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

This 2,498th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned.

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month, almost all of which were really good.


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer prize—and in my view, entirely deserved it. I thought this was brilliant.

The plot is focused on Calliope Stephanides, an intersex man who—despite a XY chromosomal pattern—has a genetic disorder which causes him to be born with feminine genitalia, and to be raised as a girl. The condition reveals itself as Calliope reaches puberty.

But this isn’t just a novel about an intersex man, or even just about gender identity: most of the previous paragraph makes up only the final third of the novel. The rest explores Calliope’s family history, commenting on the immigrant experience for his grandparents moving from Greece to Detroit, and telling a compelling set of stories of consanguinity. The narrator is also witty, and this book made me laugh.

I thought this was brilliant, both in terms of its telling of the broad canvas story of immigration and social change, and of the specific plot and the gender issues caught up in it. It is a real page-turner of a story, as well as having a lot to say.

❧ I alternated between an ebook from Scribd’s library and a hardback from The London Library. I then ended up buying the pictured paperback because I enjoyed this so much.


Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio

This is the 2021 translation by Howard Curtis of the 2017 best-selling Italian novel by Gianrico Carofiglio. In terms of describing the plot, can do no better than quoting Curtis’s note at the back of the book:

This is basically a novel about communication, a story of a father and son who, through extraordinary circumstances, are forced to spend time together and, in doing so, to discover truths about each other they might not otherwise have learned. They do this mainly by talking, really talking to each other, for the first time in their lives. Over the course of two sleepless days and nights in Marseilles, the characters discover the power of words to reveal the truth of the human soul.

This was right up my street, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the first Carofiglio novel I have read, and I very much enjoyed the precise style of writing, particularly for a book which is about such imprecise and shifting qualities in human relationships. 

The son in the book is, for the most part, in his late teens, so this is also something of a coming-of-age novel. The ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which force father and son together are related to a diagnosis of a particular kind of childhood epilepsy, so there’s an interesting parallel between ‘growing up’ in an emotional sense and growing out of childhood conditions.

There was loads to think about in such a short book, and I think it would reward re-reading too.

❧ I bought a hardback and read most of this from there, but did dip into an ebook version from Scribd’s library now and again.


Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! by Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s 1998 novel about the life and complicated past of an up-and-coming female newsreader in the 1970s is not the sort of thing I’d usually pick up for myself, but it was recommended ages ago by my friend Julie.

While it felt a bit melodramatic, there were some interesting underlying social history themes (it’s hard to be more specific without revealing too much of the plot!) and the writing style and tone were light and fun: perfect for a holiday read. There’s even a dash of romance.

This was a great recommendation: something is never have come across myself, and which I really enjoyed.

❧ I bought and read this in paperback.


The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

Translated by Sue Dyson in 2008, this is French author Jean Teulé’s popular 2007 fable about a cartoonish family (not unlike the Addams family) who run a shop selling suicide methods in a future where climate change has ravaged the world. 

In 169 pages, Teulé combines black humour with a moral message which feels highly relevant to our times. It made me laugh out loud a couple of times, and I enjoyed it, but in retrospect I’m not sure if it may have been just a little bit too twee despite the darkness… but perhaps that’s how fables are supposed to make us feel.

❧ I read most of this in ebook form from Scribd’s library, but switched to a paperback sometimes which I bought a while ago.


Disney’s Land by Richard Snow

I’ve never been to the original Disneyland in California, and haven’t really got any strong interest in it, though I have been to the Florida and Paris versions at various points in my life. I passed Anaheim on a train a few years ago, and wasn’t drawn to take the opportunity to pop out for a gander. I couldn’t reliably tell the ‘Matterhorn’ from ‘Big Thunder Mountain’. Yet, I enjoyed this 2019 history of Walt Disney’s personal involvement in the design and building of Disneyland.

This book reminded me in a sense of The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon, another book I unexpectedly enjoyed, in that interest in the primary subject matter doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for gaining insight from the text and getting caught up in the ‘plot’. I suppose, to some degree, that is the mark of a successful non-fiction book. This is as much a sociocultural history as it is a book about a theme park, and it was filled with anecdote and wit, and Snow’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through.

This is a book I’d never have picked up except on recommendation, and yet I enjoyed it from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ll remember many of the details twelve months from now, but it was very diverting while I read it.

❧ I bought a hardback and alternated between it and an ebook version from Scribd’s library.


How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

I picked this up because my friend Rachael recommended it. It is a recently published first novel by Bella Mackie, in which the protagonist, Grace, decides to murder all of the living members of her estranged family in order to secure an inheritance.

I enjoyed this to a point: Grace was a fun character sketched with dark humour rooted in contemporary culture. But to me, she was a bit too fun, and not really dark and calculating enough to convince me that she was capable of multiple brutal murders. It felt like the character lacked an edge.

This was problematic, as there isn’t much carrying this book other than Grace’s character. The plot is essentially little more than a short story collection of vaguely related murders, with a disappointing cop out of an ending which does little to round off the story or round out Grace’s character.

So, in the end, this was a fun read… but really not much more than ‘okay’ overall.

❧ I bought a hardback and read most of this from there, but did dip into an ebook version from Scribd’s library now and again.

This 2,497th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.


2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.

Postbox

3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.


4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”


5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.


6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.


7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.


8: Goats have rectangular pupils.


9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.


10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”


11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.


12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.


13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).


14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.


15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.


16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.


17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:


18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”


19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”


20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”


21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.


22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.


23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”


24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.


25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”


26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?


27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”


28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.


29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.


30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.


31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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