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30 things I learned in November 2019

1: It feels great, if a little anticlimactic, to finally be able to delete “Locum” from my email signature.

2: The North Shields Fish Quay has really smartened up since Wendy and I last visited. It would be nice to live somewhere with a river view, if only it didn’t have to be near a river.

3: Going to Ikea for the 10.30 Sunday browsing opening time isn’t a successful crowd avoidance strategy.

4: Barriers between healthcare organisations can make simple things—like arranging urgent vaccinations—more difficult than they ought to be. Perhaps someone should invent some sort of national health service which provides care based on need rather than budgets, contract provisions and organisational mission statements.

5: Telling patients that they look far too young to have donated blood 61 times makes them want to go back and donate again as soon as possible to receive more flattery.

6: Sometimes, people who use irritating business chatter do actually understand what they’re on about.

7: Business planning isn’t my bag.

8: Th Guardian Daily app doesn’t work properly on Kindle tablets.

9: Loud Christmas music in coffee shops makes settling down with a coffee and a good book difficult. Headphones and white noise on Spotify are an imperfect and antisocial solution.

10: It’s not easy being green: should I buy second-hand books and support the planet or new books and support the author?

11: Durham County Council has meeting rooms with quite spectacular coastal views in Seaham:

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12: Dementia friendly parking spaces are now a thing… at least in Hemlington:

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13: “At this time of year, it is not uncommon for viruses including influenza and norovirus to circulate in schools. The risk of infection can be reduced by practising good hand hygiene, particularly after using the toilet, after using a tissue to catch a cough or a sneeze, and before eating.”

14: Our TV needs re-tuning. Broadcasts are moving away from the 700MHz band of frequencies to free up spectrum for mobile data instead. Given the profitability of mobile data services and the proliferation of home broadband (especially in the context of PSTN switch-off), I wonder how long over-the-air television broadcast have left?

15: Arguments opposing the Public Libraries Act 1850 included a Conservative view that people “have too much knowledge already” and that “the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” In fairness, I suppose people now carry the sum of human knowledge in their pockets and do have a tendency to be rebel against authoritarian control, so perhaps he had a point.

16: The TLS has relaunched with a rather stylish new look. Dr Brian Klass’s comparison of politics in Trump’s America and that in Brexit Britain through the medium of cheese was a particular highlight of this issue for me.

17: Coffee shop Christmas music irritates Wendy even more than me. It’s depressing, or so I’m told.

18: A replacement wing mirror for a 2009 Aygo costs less than £50. I was expecting a much bigger bill after someone completely snapped mine off (and didn’t leave a note!)

19: The brand new Sunderland medical school has some impressive facilities.

20: Colleagues at Middlesbrough Council taught me that routine air quality monitoring still uses diffusion tubes fixed to lampposts; people have to go up in cherry pickers to change the tubes every month.

21: Research into treatments for interstitial lung disease includes a lot of discussion about disease taxonomy and the problem of lumping and splitting: considering diagnoses with the same underlying pathology together (lumping) or as distinct entities (splitting).

22: Cleveland Fire Brigade taught me about their Stay Safe and Warm free one-hour response service for boiler breakdowns where they lend people emergency electric heaters.

23: A wet and dreary Saturday can be a good prompt to light the fire and relax at home.

24: I didn’t know that Sheffield had a hybrid tram-train system until I read this Wired article.

25: Purdah rules can be really annoying sometimes, especially when I’ve done a lot of work to prepare for a meeting I’m no longer able to attend.

26: I thought I learned the etymology of the word “syndrome” after it was featured in a lecture. Yet after thinking about it for a while, the suggestion that it was derived from words for “before” and “diagnosis” didn’t ring true, so I looked it up in the OED online. The lecture version was thus proven to be completely wrong, so I suppose I learned not to take the content of lectures on trust.

27: Only a decade late to the party, I learned that Ecosia—the search engine that plants trees—is a thing.

28: People really don’t know what I do all day. This month, in my health protection role, a meeting of vascular surgeons has invited me to talk about knife crime, a univeristy course has asked me to teach about rural medicine, and a meeting of intensivists has invited me to present on recreational drug toxicology. They may be disappointed at me turning down their kind invitations, but they’d be far more disappointed if I accepted given that I know naff all about any of those topics.

29: Via Lana Greene’s column in 1843, I leaned of the German word “Multioptionsgesellschaft”. It was apparently coined by Peter Gross, a Swiss sociologist, in the early 1990s. It refers to a world swamped by choice, which feels very current: I frequently open Netflix for something to watch and close it a few minutes later with the resignation of not being able to decide.

30: I heard a snippet of a radio programme in which an older person was being interviewed and the subject of loneliness among the elderly came up. The interviewee suggested that while lots of attention has been paid to loneliness recently, too little has been paid to the loss of solitude for many other older people, such as those in care homes. I’d never heard that point made before, and I suspect it will stick with me: solitude is something very important to me.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Before I sat down to write this post, I didn’t think I’d read many books this month, but it turns out that I have eight to tell you about.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak

I read this essay, published by the Wellcome Collection earlier this year, in one sitting. It was a passionate and beautifully written plea for pluralism, understanding, thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness. Shafak drew on her personal experiences as well as contemporary events, from covid-19 to the death of George Floyd. Shafak reminded me of the dangers of polarisation and echo chambers and the important of dialogue and understanding.

Coming at a time when all of the above seem in short supply in the world, I found myself getting a little emotional reading this. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1983, and translated into English by Ted Goossen in 2014, this was a beguilingly strange short novel, perfect for reading in a single sitting. It’s a reflection of the book’s weirdness that there seems to be no popular agreement on whether this book is aimed at adults or children. It defies classification.

The plot concerned a young boy who visited his local City Library only to be kidnapped in the basement by an old man who wants to eat his brain. Had I known of that synopsis before I opened the book, I’d have passed on it: it sounds ridiculous and not at all like the sort of book I’d enjoy. And yet, Murakami’s writing combined with the beautiful production of the hardback lends the tale a hypnotic quality. It starts to feel like allegory—but for what?—while also being pure fantasy told in language which is entirely grounded in reality, but also somehow poetic.

This was a very short read, taking less than an hour, but was nevertheless memorable for being unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

This was the recently published second volume from the Secret Barrister. It concentrated on the gap between political discourse and the reality of legislation, and the gap between media coverage of court cases and the arguments and principles actually under consideration.

I am one of those strange individuals who occasionally downloads court judgements in high profile cases, particularly those that pertain to healthcare. I enjoy diving into the gritty detail and reveling in the clarity of expression in the writing of most judgements from higher courts.

This book was right up my street. Each chapter opened with the arguments concerning a case or piece of legislation as made out by Ministers or the media. The Secret Barrister then set out the legal reality of the situation, broadened the discussion with other exemplar cases, and rounded off with a summary of the fundamental principles underlying the relevant area of law.

The book was engaging and easy to read. The Secret Barrister was very witty and persuasive in their arguments. I really enjoyed this.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman

This was Rutger Bregman’s recently published follow-up to Utopia for Realists. It was translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

Bregman set out to argue that most people are inherently good-natured. This struck me as a strange argument to make because it seems self-evident to me: after all, society relies on people being mostly good-natured and doing the right thing. But Bregman had a good go at making the argument that the media and culture more generally acts to convince us that most people are selfish and uncaring, but I didn’t really buy it.

This was a familiar feeling: just as I found Utopia for Realists challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that societal development had stalled, I found Humankind challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that most people think ill of most other people.

But just as with Utopia for Realists, I enjoyed Humankind nevertheless. Bregman discussed his ideas optimistically and cheerfully, mixing anecdote and data in a way which was very engaging. Some of the revelations about some of the famous psychological studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment were new to me and enlightening.

Bregman’s observation about negativity bias and trusting people also struck a chord. If we choose to trust someone, they can undermine that trust, which is an acutely negative experience. On the other hand, if we choose not to trust someone, that decision rarely turns into an acutely negative experience, even if it may have been the worse course of action.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book, and there’s rarely been a time when a dose of optimism has been more welcome.

Will He Go? by Lawrence Douglas

Lawrence Douglas is a Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought who has written a series of interesting articles for The Guardian over the last couple of years about the legal challenges posed by the Trump administration. In this volume, published in the spring, he sketches out ways in which Trump may have attempt to cling on to the presidency, even though the election result was not in his favour.

I read this right at the start of the month, in the run up to election day. Beyond the specifics of the current election, Douglas gave an illustration of how the procedures laid down in the US Constitution and subsequent law are open to abuse by malicious actors. As a British reader, it was interesting to compare the flaws between the codified US system and the haphazard traditions of the UK system for elections, especially as devolution moves the UK ever closer to a federal system with all of the unresolved constitutional questions that raises.

Douglas’s partial argument for the abolition of the Electoral College didn’t win me over: while I appreciate the flaws and insecurities of the system as it stands, I’m not sure it is reasonable in a federal system for the President to be elected by popular vote alone, and so I’m not convinced that abolition, as opposed to reform, is the right approach.

This was a quick and absorbing read, even if the more extreme possibilities it covered didn’t come to pass (or at least haven’t yet).

A Classical Education by Caroline Taggart

Published in 2009, this was Taggart’s short and lighthearted book on Greek and Roman history, with a concentration on bits which are particularly relevant to modern life. After a somewhat slow start rehearsing the meanings of common Latin phrases, I found myself bouyed along by Taggart’s humour and light touch.

I didn’t do much history at school, dropping it well before GCSE. I did study Latin for year, after which the school stopped offering it and I was transferred to Home Economics instead. And I’m not a big reader of the ancient classics.

All of this meant that much of the content of this book was stuff I knew once a long time ago, or have a cultural awareness of without really knowing the background. As a result, I found this light-hearted recap quite fun… but those who are better read than me might well find it very lacking!

The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

This was Richards’s 2019 book reflecting on the leadership of the nine Prime Ministers from Wilson to May. There is now an extended revised edition also covering Johnson (which is the one I’ve linked to), but I have the original version.

I had mixed feelings about the book. After a lengthy introduction, it was structured chronologically, with roughly forty pages dedicated to each leader. Each profile was readable and interesting, and these struck me as broadly balanced appraisals.

However, I thought that his critical analysis and comparison of the leaders was a little broad-brush: I’m not sure I needed this book to tell me that early elections are dangerous or that Prime Ministers tend to have a honeymoon period where those with a strong idea of what they want to achieve can get a lot done with limited opposition. I had hoped for a little more.

The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond

This was Claudia Hammond’s 2019 book which chatted through each the ‘top ten’ most restful activities as determined by a large survey of members of the public.

This was light and fun, with plenty of humour and personal anecdote. Hammond gave a spirited argument for taking rest more seriously, which felt timely for me given that the pandemic has left me a bit swamped with work! I liked Hammond’s “whatever works for you” approach to writing about the topic, which was refreshing given that so many books on related topics are so prescriptive. Her discussion of mindfulness was particularly grounded in realism—it works for some people, it’s not for everyone, and other activities can be just as beneficial.

Hammond presents and contributes quite a bit on Radio 4, including presenting “All in the Mind”, and the tone and content of this book reminded me of a typical series of Radio 4 documentaries—interesting, light and witty, but necessarily lacking the depth and rigorous analysis of more formal coverage of the topic.

I enjoyed this book, but didn’t come away from it thinking that I’d covered much new ground.

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