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Weekend read: The shipping container: a humble hero

Shipping containers

This week, my chosen Weekend Read highlights the logistical importance of the humble shipping container. This short article in The Economist describes the profound impact that the introduction of the shipping container on global trade. It serves as a reminder of the innovative logistical thinking which keeps our world running from day to day, but which rarely reaches the conscious mind.

The picture at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by Jim Bahn, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Review: The Autobiography by Margaret Thatcher

No-one can deny that Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure. As so often, I’m somewhere in the middle. To me, Thatcher has qualities that one can admire, even if one isn’t supportive – to put it mildly – of everything she did. As an autobiography, it’s wholly unsurprising that it is her positive attributes that tend to shine through here.

It seems a little unfair to compare prime-ministerial autobiographies, but with Tony Blair’s relatively fresh in my mind (review here), it is hard to resist. Poor writing makes Blair’s volume difficult to consume, and it took me well over a year to plod through it in relatively short bursts. In contrast, Thatcher’s is entirely readable, and very enjoyable – bordering on being a page-turner. Thatcher genuinely masters the art of making the reader feel like a close confidant, as though this is a fireside chat in book form. I get the sense that this is what Blair strives to achieve, but fails.

And yet, Thatcher’s contains much more detailed political discussion. While Blair chooses to share his toilet habits, Thatcher writes long and detailed (though defensive) rationales for many of the policies she adopted. To give a single example from their respective autobiographies, I understand much more clearly Thatcher’s argument for defending the Falklands than Blair’s argument for invading Iraq. Where I disagree with Thatcher, I can still follow her line of argument in a way that I cannot even where I agree with Blair.

This set me thinking: perhaps the reason for Thatcher’s clearer explanations is the fact that she defended her policies more often and in greater detail than Blair. The long-form wide-ranging radio and television political interviews in which Thatcher participated simply did not exist in Blair’s day. I think that represents something lost at the heart of modern democracy. But I digress.

It’s worth pointing out that this is an abridged combination of two volumes: The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years. While I haven’t read those two volumes, it seems that the abridgement has largely been handled with skill. There are occasions where the detail of events is noticeably lacking in comparison to others, but these are rare, and don’t distract from the overarching narrative.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Thatcher should write a self-assured autobiography, and it’s no surprise that many will disagree with much of the reasoning contained within. But it is the quality of the writing that stands out here, and that makes this volume worthy of four-star rating.

The Autobiography is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: When a bomb goes off in Afghanistan

Bomb exploding

My recommended read for this week comes from The Daily Beast, in which Heidi Vogt describes the harrowingly mundane process of reporting on bomb blasts in Afghanistan during her time as an AP foreign correspondent. It gives real insight into this particular aspect of war reporting in the 21st century, where every second counts when it comes to reporting news. It’s well worth a read.

The picture at the top of this post shows the detonation of an improvised explosive device by the US army’s bomb disposal team at Bagram Airfield. It was taken by Sgt Rob Frazier, posted on Flickr, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , , .

2D: Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Ukip’s increasing popularity has generated acres of news coverage in the past few months. I thought I’d use this 2D post to pick two of the more thoughtful articles about Ukip’s leader.

Writing in Prospect, the magazine for which he’s associate editor, Edward Docx describes Farage’s “relentless charm” in an article with several arresting revelations. Perhaps the most intriguing, if not the most insightful, is that “close up, he smells of tobacco, offset with a liberal application of aftershave”. I found it not a little strange how much that added to Docx’s characterisation of the man. Perhaps the scent of all party leaders should become a regular feature of all political reporting.

Docx mentions Farage’s deft handling of a lack of policy detail, but in The Telegraph, Allister Heath goes a little further in taking Farage to task on the lack of coherent policy: he claims that “there are huge black holes at the heart of Ukip’s proposals”.

While these are two rather different articles in terms of tone, form and content, they do identify much the same traits in Farage, at least from the grand political point of view. Despite this, they come to utterly different conclusions: Heath argues that Ukip essentially doesn’t “stand up to detailed scrutiny”, while Docx argues that Farage can “make politics feel personally relevant again” and “show our parliament a way to recover its dignity”.

Both arguments are well worth reading.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them! The photo at the top of this post was posted to Flickr by the Euro Realist Newsletter and has been modified and used under Creative Commons Licence.

This post was filed under: 2D, Politics, , , , , , .

Weekend read: Gay conversion: Might the CMF have a point?

Iain Brassington is a lecturer in bioethics in Manchester, and he occasionally blogs for the Journal of Medical Ethics. Back in February, he wrote a brilliant post taking on the Christian Medical Fellowship’s arguments about gay conversion “therapy”. It’s nice to see someone rehearse a whole argument explaining why gay conversion “therapy” is nonsensical: the arguments are largely obvious, but sometimes I think people are too ready to shoot others down without at least trying to explain their logical fallacies.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads.

Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It’s a measure of the brilliance of this book that my first thought having read it was that Steve Jobs was an excellent subject for a biography. He was an exceptionally complex character, who achieved quite phenomenal personal success despite a deeply flawed personality.

His complex personality could have lead to a very confused biography, but it is to Isaacson’s considerable credit that the portrait he paints is entirely clear. And, somehow, Isaacson fashions a somewhat sympathetic character out of a man whose actions were often cruel, and whose personality appears thoroughly unlikeable. Jobs’ gamut of failings run from from minor transgressions of social norms (for example, refusing to wash), via quite astonishing acts of cruelty (for example, refusing to acknowledge that his firstborn daughter was his), to alarming acts of quite alarming idiocy (for example, eating only carrots until he turned orange). Yet somehow, this collection of failings interacted to allow him to lead his businesses to create products of unparalleled perfection.

It’s somewhat disturbing to see people claim to want to emulate Jobs’s “formula for success”. I don’t think it is entirely possible to tease out whether he achieved so much despite his flaws or because of them. Could he still have made his visions reality without declaring people’s work to be “shit” and demanding the impossible of employees under the threat of on-the-spot firing? It’s impossible to know, but we can be certain that emulating such tactics will not result in the same success the majority of the time.

I find it intensely irritating to see people producing lists of “lessons learned” from this biography, which consistently list culturally positive attributes of Jobs’s behaviour (e.g. simplify things), damaging behaviours reframed in a positive light (e.g. build a team of “A players”, without mentioning that Jobs’s interpretation of this includes indiscriminate firing), and omit many of the things to which Jobs himself attributed his success (e.g. frequent use of LSD). It is typical of much of the nonsense in the field of management theory that people, without justification, attribute his success to only those bits of his management style which they find palatable. And it is infuriating.

Away from that brief digression… Whatever conclusions one draws about Jobs from reading this biography, the biography itself is – to use a Jobs phrase – “insanely great”. The 656 pages fly by, and the narrative is as absorbing as any I’ve ever read. It is a character study that combines real detail with forceful narrative drive in a way that few biographies manage, and it comes highly recommended.

Steve Jobs is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, , .

Weekend read: Deciphering illegible addresses on postal items

This weekend’s read is a fairly short article from the New York Times by Ron Nixon. It describes one of those jobs that I was conceptually aware must exist, but to which I had never really given any thought: the job of deciphering addresses on postal items which machines cannot read. The workers have to process items at quite incredible speed – an average of three seconds per item. This article is worth spending a little more than three seconds reading!

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

2D: Abdication

Much has been written in the past couple of weeks about the possibility (and, indeed, the unlikelihood) of Queen Elizabeth II following the example of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in abdicating. On the day of the Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament, I thought it was worth highlighting two articles I enjoyed reading on this topic.

My first choice is an article that, to me, felt very British. This piece by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph suggests that that, contrary to many of the arguments about the perceived cruelty of placing strain on an elderly lady,

for our queen, the cruelty would be not to be allowed to keep her promise, the promise that will only be kept when she takes her last breath.

This struck me as a slightly unusual argument, but nonetheless it’s one opinion.

My second choice is this piece by Joris Luyendijk (who is Dutch) in The Guardian. From his international perspective, he sees the Queen’s ongoing service as a

drawn-out public castration to which Queen Elizabeth is subjecting her son Charles. You can’t help being born an heir apparent, but those who love you can help make it easier for you. Queen Elizabeth is not doing that, or so it looks to a Dutch eye.

The two articles are not quite so diametrically opposed as those quotes might suggest, but they do present to interesting different opinions on the issue, and are both worth reading.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

This post was filed under: 2D, , , , .

A decade of blogging

Today is my “blogging birthday” – ten years ago today I wrote my first blog post, and have continued waffling more or less continuously since! In that time, I’ve written a little over 2,000 posts, had a little over 32 million hits and just a squeak over 7.6 million unique page impressions.

Thanks to everyone that reads the stuff I put up on here. Ten years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that I’d still be blogging in the same place when I was 28 years old and a fully qualified doctor. Similarly the idea that I’ll still be here ten years hence seems a little crazy today. But who knows? If you keep reading, perhaps I’ll keep writing!

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, Site Updates.

Weekend read: Medical emergencies at 40,000 feet

My recommended read for this weekend is an article from The Atlantic about in-flight medical emergencies. I have read quite widely around this subject over the years as it’s something I find interesting. Yet despite the fact that I didn’t feel that I learned an awful lot that was new from Celine Gounder’s article, I found it very absorbing – and not a little shocking in parts. It’s well worth a read.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

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