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Weekend read: Where will the next pandemic come from?

Varicella zoster virus

My recommended read for this week is a long but very engaging extract from David Quammen’s book Spillover. It was published in PopSci. It reads like some sort of adventure novel, but discusses the reality of tracking where the next pandemic virus might come from, and the work scientists do to prevent it. It’s well-worth reading!

The electron micrograph of a varicella zoster virus at the top of this post is from NIAID’s Flickr feed, and is used under its Creative Commons Licence.

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

2D: Sexism

Censored story

I feel we’ve reached an interesting point in the history of sexism: I seem to read a roughly equal number of articles complaining about sexism against both sexes. And today, I’ve picked a couple of interesting examples – both of which are quite short.

Firstly, here’s an article by Hadley Freeman of The Guardian (usually their fashion writer) about the sexism at Wimbledon and, in particular, the holes the BBC dug for itself:

One need only substitute the sexist nature of his comment with an equivalent racist slur to see how lightly the BBC apparently treats highly public verbal abuse of women.

It’s an interesting point, and the comments John Inverdale made during the Winbledon coverage were very clearly unacceptable. But I wonder if the BBC has ever issued an apology for sexism against men? I cannot recall such an incident. This might well be because such comments are less common, but they certainly occur.

My second selection for today is an article from Time by Jeffrey Kluger (usually their science editor), which will be familiar to subscribers of sjhoward.co.uk news. His discussion about the anachronistic commentary surrounding Prince William’s childcare skills, and the wider media portrayal of fathers, resonated with me.

The persona of the doofus dad was not something I signed up for when I became a father 12 years ago. I felt no less capable than I’d ever been, but in the popular culture, I’d crossed a line: Like all fathers, I’d become the sitcom buffoon who can’t boil an egg, warm a bottle, or be trusted to do the laundry without neglecting to add detergent and then exclaiming afterwards, “So that’s what that bottle of blue stuff was!”

Political correspondents often say that if they receive equal complaints from both ends of the political spectrum, then they’re probably doing something right. And, I guess, there’s an argument that if there are equal complaints about discrimination against men and women, then we as a society are doing something right.

That’s not a position I hold. I believe that the sort of casual discrimination against both men and women that these two articles discuss is clearly unacceptable. I hope that one day we, as a society, will get this right.

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 Beth Granter, whose parents “censored” this childhood storybook. The photo is used under its Creative Commons licence.

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

sjhoward.co.uk news #6 – Singles, selfies and safety – going out soon

If you don’t already subscribe to sjhoward.co.uk news, you need to sign up in the next few minutes if you don’t want to miss this week’s edition!

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Weekend read: The BMA and homosexuality

I’ve chosen a relatively short recommended read for this weekend: I know people like a variety of lengths in these selections, and I’m aware that the last few weeks have been pretty heavy going!

Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, published a brilliant post on the BMJ blog back in June about the BMA’s difficult relationship with homosexuality. Or really, in some ways, I guess it’s more about the BMA’s relationship with the concept of masculinity. It’s hard to beleive that, well within living memory, the BMA made statements like this:

Effeminate men wearing make-up and using scent are objectionable to everybody.

And, as if the rest wasn’t enough, the casual sexism on display in the BMA’s previous advice is totally jaw-dropping:

Other men adopt homosexual practices as a substitute for extramarital heterosexual intercourse because there is no fear of causing emotional complications as in the life of a woman.

I think it is sometimes easy to forget the relative speed with which British society has become socially enlightened, and Smith’s blog post serves as a curious reminder of common attitudes of the not-too-distant past. It’s food for thought.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads.

Review: Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis

Amazon recently boasted of the success of it’s Kindle Singles, novella-length ebooks by notable authors sold at low prices. I understand that Amazon has sold over five million ‘singles’ since it launched the programme a little over two years ago, and they have reasonably recently been gifted their own reserved location in the Kindle store.

Having never read a ‘single’, I felt a little like I was missing out, so I logged on and bought Gutenberg the Geek by one of my favourite media writers (and one-time reader of this blog) Jeff Jarvis.

Given that this is my first ‘single’, I feel I have to spent some time writing about the format. I understand that Gutenberg the Geek is about average in terms of ‘single’ length. Essentially, it seems short enough to read in one sitting, yet long enough to explore topics and ideas in some depth. It seemed much the same length as the longform feature articles in news magazines. Of course, this is a much-lamented length that has become something of a cause du jour, with all sorts of outlets from Matter to NSFWCorp to Longform doing their best to “protect this style of journalism” which they believe is dying, while all the while The New Yorker, Wired and Time continue to publish longform articles. I wonder, really, what Kindle Singles can offer than all of these other “solutions” cannot.

I should, perhaps, backtrack a little here and point out that I really like and admire Matter (which I helped to fund), NSFWCorp (to which I subscribe) and Longform (which I read daily). I don’t mean to sound critical of them. But, while I like longform journalism, it’s a rare morning where I awake from my slumber and think “I must read something long today”. Obsessing about longform journalism makes little more sense than obsessing over making articles shorter and punchier. The important thing is that the right content is in the right form.

I guess the upshot of this is that I feel a bit short-changed by the Kindle Singles format. It feels like a length that should be in a magazine, and that doesn’t quite stand comfortably in isolation. But perhaps that’s down to the novelty more than the form itself.

And so to Gutenberg the Geek. This is a fine, brief biography of Gutenberg which presents him as “the original technology entrepreneur”. As I’d expect from Jeff Jarvis, he gives a convincing account and argument for shining Gutenberg’s achievement through this prism, and uses the light it casts to illuminate modern-day questions around everything from internet freedom to start-up investment. Handled with Jarvis’s typically deft touch, the comparison feels neither strained nor awkward, and never as though the life of Gutenberg is being manipulated to fit.

This sort of thing, I suspect, answers the question about what Kindle Singles can offer. This ‘single’ wouldn’t fit comfortably as a passage in a bigger book, as it’s a self-contained idea. The idea wouldn’t survive stretching to fill an entire standard-length book, without detrimental deviation from the central thrust. And as much as the length may be appropriate for magazine publication, I think it would be difficult to convince an editor to carry what amounts to a mildly esoteric thought-experiment with little new content. Publishing it as a standalone actually works rather well.

So I guess I’ve reached the somewhat circular conclusion that I like the writing of a writer whose writing I like. Gutenberg the Geek presents the life of Gutenberg in a fairly novel way, and left me with much food for thought. What more could I ask for 99p?

Gutenberg the Geek is available now from amazon.co.uk, exclusively on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: The undertaker’s racket

My recommended read this weekend is “The Undertaker’s Racket” written by Jessica Mitford and published in The Atlantic.tic. It’s a very well-written article describing the funeral business in the United States. It’s fascinating, shocking, and intriguing all at once, without ever being ghoulish.

It wasn’t until after I’d finished the article that I realised the date on top of it – this was originally published in 1963. It was written to promote the release of Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, an exposé of the industry’s practices which caused a huge stir when it was published.

At over fifty years old, I think this may be least timely article I’ve chosen in this series to date, but it’s most definitely worth a read this weekend.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

2D: Bankers & banking

Bankers have barely been out of the news for the last couple of years, yet – as with so many long-running stories – there are relatively few good articles that give any perspective to the day-to-day happenings. For this 2D, I’ve found two articles that do just that.

The first article I’ve chosen is from the London Review of Books, was written by John Lanchester, and was published in July. “Are we having fun yet?” uses all sorts of arresting comparisons to contextualise the behaviour of banks, and also explains aspects of it that I had previously not really understood. Here’s one example of a breathtaking statistic:

Lloyds’ total provision for PPI has now hit £6.7 billion, getting on for the full cost of the London Olympics, just from that one bank.

I often find it hard to conceptualise the value of a few billion pounds; maybe things should be costed in “London Olympics” from now on, in the same way we measure things in “Nelson’s Columns”.

Lanchester briefly touches on the computer meltdown at RBS a couple of years ago that caused a lot of disruption to me, personally, as well as to many thousands of other customers. His discussion with one banker poses on of the major questions I had at the time, and which still mystifies me to some extent:

‘It’s a mystery why people weren’t angrier,’ one banker told me. ‘I mean, how much worse can it get than people not being able to get hold of their own money? I don’t think people realised just how big a deal it was.

I also confess that I enjoyed this particular aside:

I know that lots of people refuse to subscribe to Sky because of its connection to Rupert Murdoch, but News Corp owns only 39 per cent of BSkyB and the Murdoch family owns only 12 per cent of News Corp. That means that more than 95 per cent of Sky is owned by not-Murdoch, which as far as I’m concerned puts it in the clear. Murdoch’s 4.68 per cent of Sky is only a fraction more than Libya’s 3.27 per cent share of Pearson: I’ve never heard of anyone refusing to buy a Penguin book because of Colonel Gaddafi.)

The second article I’ve chosen is somewhat different: a Reuters blog by Felix Salmon (which, pleasingly, mentions the LRB article above). “Adventures with ‘free’ checking, transatlantic edition” talks about the “myth” of free banking in the United States. This is something I’ve read about so often in the UK media that I’ve become somewhat immune to the shock the articles often try to induce in me. Reading about the problem in the context of a slightly different banking system helps points like this to stick:

If you think your bank is being transparent about how it’s making money from you, or if you think that your banking is free, then you’re almost certainly mistaken.

I also thought that the personal story with which Salmon opens his post offers a nice counterbalance to the rather grander scale on which Lanchester talks in his article. I think these two articles work very well together.

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, , , , , .

This week’s sjhoward.co.uk news is going out soon

This week’s sjhoward.co.uk news will be going out in the next hour or so. If you haven’t yet signed up, you’ll need to be quick if you don’t want to miss edition #4!

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Weekend read: The rape of men

This week’s recommended read is a deeply troubling report by The Guardian‘s Will Storr published a couple of years ago. It discusses – in some graphic detail – the appalling rapes suffered by many thousands of men during wars in Africa and elsewhere.

The article quotes Chris Dolan, British directory of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project:

The organisations working on sexual and gender-based violence don’t talk about it. It’s systematically silenced. If you’re very, very lucky they’ll give it a tangential mention at the end of a report. You might get five seconds of: ‘Oh and men can also be the victims of sexual violence.’ But there’s no data, no discussion.

Storr also talks to a victim of male rape, who at the time of his attack was studying electronic engineering at a university in the Congo:

Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul’s hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: “Many, many, many bleeding,” he says, “I could feel it like water.” Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed.

This article is undeniably disturbing and reading it feels a little uncomfortable – but perhaps it is altogether more disturbing that we hear so little about topic, and that there is seemingly so little support for victims. It is certainly thought-provoking.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Review: The Upgrade by Paul Carr

The Upgrade is the follow up to Paul Carr’s Bringing Nothing to the Party, to which I gave a qualified positive review a few months ago:

This clearly isn’t a heavy-weight, profound, life-changing book, but it has no pretentions in that direction. It’s a short, fun and funny autobiographical tale, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Compared to Bringing Nothing to the Party, I found The Upgrade to be a hard slog. The book essentially continues Carr’s autobiographical tale, picking up where the previous volume left off. Carr reaches the realisation that rental prices in London are exceptionally high, and that he could likely live in hotels for less. And so, he commits himself to a nomadic lifestyle in which he travels the world living in hotels. This book is advertised as his guide to following in those footsteps.

Of course, few people have a job or lifestyle that would be conducive to travelling the world on a whim. Carr himself acknowledges this in the book, pointing out that most other self-help books also offer solutions that work only within the context of the author’s life. And yet, Carr doesn’t really offer much insight, either. His oft-repeated guide to getting cheap rates in a hotel comes down to three points:

  1. Claim to be a journalist and ask for the uber-secret “media rate”, even if this involves going via the hotel’s PR firm.
  2. Stay for a long time – preferably over a month – and negotiate a long-stay discount.
  3. Travel out of season, and charge your friends to visit you.

If the existence of any of these three methods of obtaining cheap hotel stays comes as a surprise, then perhaps you’ll enjoy this book more than me. It’s also worth pointing out that Paul’s travels “around the world” consist almost exclusively of staying in a handful of cities in the US, and a handful of villages in Europe.

So, discounting the useless self-help angle, we’re left with an autobiographical tale. Unfortunately, the story is one of an increasingly unlikeable self-obsessed character becoming an alcoholic and spending every night getting drunk, to the extent that he cannot remember his actions the following morning. Imagine the following sequence on a loop:

  1. Paul goes to a party full of beautiful women and gets blind drunk.
  2. Paul wakes up (often naked and in public) and cannot remember the previous night.
  3. Paul discovers that he has offended someone with his drunken behaviour.
  4. Paul attempts to make amends – with “hilarious” consequences!

This cycle becomes rapidly very dull indeed.

On a stylistic note, Carr is a heavy user of the “amusing” footnote. I’m not a fan of the use of footnotes for content (as opposed to references) at the best of times. I often think it’s indicative of poorly structured writing, as though the writer is unable to adequately structure their thoughts in such a way as to incorporate asides into the main body of their work, expand upon them, or edit them out.1 You may draw your own conclusions on my opinion of footnotes like Carr’s:


*I shit you not!

†Really, I shit you not!

Unfortunately, this use of “amusing” footnotes is becoming more and more common of late – though I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for it. I recently reviewed Richard Bacon’s book, A Series of Unrelated Events, and this suffered from exactly the same problem.

Part of the attraction of Bringing Nothing to the Party was getting the inside story on the development of some of the dotcom bubble’s hottest properties. Upgrade has none of this, as Paul writes almost exclusively about his own flagging career as a freelance writer and blogger. This career does not make for interesting reading.

Despite all that is wrong with this book, there is a feel-good uptick at the end. This may be a spoiler. Carr has an epiphany, realises he is an alcoholic, and begins abstaining. Unfortunately, this interesting development is where the book – frustratingly – ends. Had this been the start, I think the book would likely have been an altogether more interesting prospect.

As it stands, however, the surprising ending and occasional half-decent pun are not sufficient counterbalance to improve an otherwise poor volume. In essence, this book recounts a dull, repetitive tale with little to say, and few insights to offer.

The Upgrade is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

1My own occasional tedious use of footnotes proves this rule.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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