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30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”


2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.


3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.


4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.


5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.


6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.


7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.


8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:


9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.


10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.


11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”


12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.


13: What’s the difference between music and language?


14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”


15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.


16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.


17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.


18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”


19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.


20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.


21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”


22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.


23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.


24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?


25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.


26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”


27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.


28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.


29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.


30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

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What I’ve been reading this month

This is the sixty-second of these monthly posts about what I’ve been reading, and I’ve got seven books to mention.


A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

This is Zweig’s 1941 novella, only 80 pages in length, which I read in Alexander Starritt’s 2013 translation. Some translations have been published with the original title The Royal Game, which I think I prefer. 

With such a short book, it’s hard to talk much about the plot without giving away key details. The setting is a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires. Our narrator discovers that a chess world champion is on board, and a number of matches follow.

Zweig crams more food for thought into 80 pages than most full-length novels. His main theme seems to deal both explicitly and allegorically with Nazism, largely from a psychological perspective. There is a brilliant account of prolonged isolation and it’s psychological effects. And the plot itself moves at a reasonable lick.

This was very easily read in a single sitting, and well worth it.


The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

My friend Rachael recommended this to me as a book which, despite being very close to home, she’d raced through in a couple of days. Published earlier this year, but written pre-covid, it is a novel set mostly in the UK in the near future concerning a global pandemic. Unlike covid, the pathogen in the book affects only men and has a very high mortality rate.

This was a great recommendation. 

The plot and characterisation are, to be honest, a bit bonkers: for example, one of the main characters is an A&E consultant who loves the ‘certainty’ of medicine (is there any specialty that’s less about certainty and more about balancing risk than emergency medicine?) and who changes to a completely different specialty overnight, with no training. 

The book has a cast of different narrators, and the vast majority of the narration is by female characters. This is a really inspired creative choice, widening the scope of the novel and focussing on those ‘left behind’, and most of the recurring characters were well fleshed-out. The decision to have the occasional standalone chapters widened the field even further. The gender issue feels like it would have attracted more controversy in reverse, though it’s not like the world is short on books written from a male perspective about the deaths of women.

The choice to include ‘newspaper articles’ as chapters was weakened by deciding that those articles should be first-person narrated, in the same style as every other chapter. The writing throughout struck me as pretty pedestrian.

But you know what? For all its faults, I raced through this book much as Rachael did. It feels wrong to call a book about the deaths of millions “fun”, but it really was. And perhaps even a little cathartic.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2011, this is Madeline Miller’s much-acclaimed retelling of the story of the Trojan War, focused on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. It is narrated from the perspective of Patroclus.

My knowledge of Greek mythology isn’t great, though I think I remember a little bit from school. I was a little nervous of reading this despite all the recommendations because I thought it might be a little too fantastical for me, what with all the gods and centaurs and everything… but at its heart, this is a story about the nature of love and courage, and the context was so well realised by the author (helped, no doubt, by centuries of earlier material for which the author has a clear passion) that I didn’t find it to be a barrier.

This was both a thrilling page-turner and a love story, and I enjoyed both equally.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

This is Sedaris’s 2008 collection of humorous autobiographical essays, and I was predisposed to enjoy it given that I’ve enjoyed all of his other similar volumes. 

This one had a fantastic essay about time spent in a Medical Examiner’s office (‘The Monster Mash’) which brought back memories of my medical school elective spent in a Medical Examiner’s office in Calgary. One of the essays also had some examples of strange English phrases spotted in Japan (‘The Smoking Section’) which made me choke on a drink on public transport, resulting in coughing fit which has become entirely socially unacceptable in the pandemic era.


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is Annie Dillard’s 1989 collection of short essays on how she writes, and the process of writing in general. I don’t write for a living (obviously), but much of what Dillard says in this book felt familiar from the times when I have done bits of writing here and there, and I enjoyed the deeper insights of such a well-regarded and talented writer.

This was well worth reading considering its short length.


The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

Carys Davies’s much-celebrated 2014 collection of seventeen short stories wasn’t really up my street. This isn’t that surprising, and nor should it put you off: I’m not generally a fan of collections of short stories.

The lengths in this collection are highly varied, from a few sentences to thirty or so pages. I didn’t pick up any particular theme running through the collection, though quite a few of the stories contain unexpected twists, and I suppose in retrospect that most of them build up some kind of tension or suspense. I particularly enjoyed the titular story, and also ‘Sybil’, but it was ‘The Quiet’ which was the standout story for me.

However, many of the others in the collection did nothing for me at all, and unfortunately I don’t think that the signal to noise ratio was great enough that I’d want to pick up another of Davies’s collections.


When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

I picked this book up because I’d heard about it in passing somewhere, and evidently had the wrong end of the stick. I had understood that it was an autobiographical account of personal suffering and challenge and insightful tips on how to cope with life “when things fall apart.” It isn’t really that. First published in 1997, it’s an introduction to several aspects of Buddhist practice, explained in an accessible and relatable way, with lots of personal anecdote thrown in and a warm, caring, personal tone.

While this was interesting and easy to read, I don’t think I would have picked it up had I done my research first, as it’s not really my kind of thing. I won’t be picking up any of Chödrön’s other (many) books—but if this is a topic you want to read about, this book seems like an approachable starting point.

This 2,493rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

Becoming antisocial

Over the course of the last six months or so, I’ve gradually drifted away from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the last few weeks, I’ve deleted my accounts. This feels oddly transgressive, and friends who noticed have responded with mild alarm and a single universal question: ‘Why?’

There is no straightforward answer: it’s a complex web of emotional, social and rational reasons rather than a logically constructed ‘position’. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to scribble down some thoughts on the topic.

I joined Facebook in (I think) 2005. I was a student at the time and so able to join as soon as Facebook ‘launched’ at my university. It connected me with my friends and solved a genuine problem of how best to share things like photos from events.

A year later, Facebook opened to anyone with an email address, and schoolfriends and relatives quickly found their way onto my ‘friends’ list. I appreciated this passive approach to gaining insight into the lives of others, and I felt a genuine connection with people I hadn’t seen for years.

I was also a relatively early-adopter of Twitter, signing up in around 2007. I used the service for a variety of purposes over the years, including ‘micro-blogging’ – posting standalone tweets which I also cross-posted to this very website. Over the years, I built up a collection of interesting people who I ‘followed’, and enjoyed debating and sparring with them.

I also started to use Twitter for work purposes, promoting events I’d been involved in, tweeting about conferences I was attending, and that sort of thing. The service became something of a professional networking platform for me.

I was not an early adopter of Instagram. I don’t think I ever worked out how to get the most out of that service: I ‘followed’ people I knew in real life, and enjoyed seeing their photos. I also followed a few accounts which posted beautiful travel photos because they made me dream of summer holidays.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that Instagram wasn’t for me. I’d been posting for a year or so when I gradually drifted away from the service, and eventually stopped opening the app. There was no conscious decision behind that behaviour.

Reflecting on it, my Instagram feed seemed to me to have a single emotional note: joy. There’s a Glenn Slater lyric about ‘forcing you to feel more joy than you can bear,’ and that’s what Instagram did for me. It’s wearing to browse a world where everyone presents as constantly delighted.

I don’t want to live in a world of constant ecstasy; perhaps I’m a grumpy git, but I need a bit of shade to better appreciate the light. And I suppose the same is true of my social media feeds.

The advertising on Instagram also served to undermine the emotion in a perverse way. Artfully taken pictures of crappy products undermine the sentimentality and emotional pull of the service. Putting a beautiful picture of a terrible product alongside a beautiful picture of a magnificent vista undermines the latter. And Instagram ‘influencers’ trying to shill crap always left a nasty taste.

At heart, the service just didn’t make me feel happy anymore, and I drifted away. I didn’t delete my account, but I did eventually delete the app.

It was Brexit that pushed me off Twitter.

Twitter has always had the capacity to facilitate unproductive tribal debate. The format is part of the reason: it isn’t possible to develop a sensible argument in 140 (or even 280) characters. Debates rage about individual word choices while wider context is missed.

The Twitter community also has an inflated sense of its own representativeness and importance. People think their Twitter bubble reflects the ‘general view’ of the world and become enraged and upset when reality conflicts with that perception. Conspiracy theories abound, the ‘mainstream media’ gets pilloried for reflecting mainstream opinion rather than that of the ‘twitterati’, and the whole community frequently becomes angry.

Anger drove me away from Twitter: not the anger of others, but my own anger. I’d habitually open my Twitter feed on my phone from time to time and noted that it always made me feel angry. I could be annoyed at a story of injustice that would otherwise have passed me by; frusrtated by someone’s absurd perversion of a news article or viewpoint; or angry at myself for hypocritically thinking less of someone for ranting on Twitter.

Once, I habitually opened the Twitter app while strolling along the promenade in Nice on a beautifully sunny day. There was a lot in my feed about Brexit, including some ‘real life’ friends espousing extreme positions and abusing politicians. The angry mob raised my dander, and I fired off a tweet about this being the first and only time I’d ever get to wander around this beautiful city as an EU citizen.

As I walked on, I reflected: I’d felt relaxed before I opened Twitter; now I was mildly stressed. I’d posted what amounted to a pointless rant, and just contributed to the collected unhealthy rage. I opened Twitter again, deleted the tweet and deleted the app.

It was covid that drove me off Facebook.

My feed became clogged with covid posts, many of them factually wrong, many angry and many seemingly calculated to generate fear. I felt that the time had come for a break from Facebook, and I deleted the app, intending for this to be temporary.

I had temporarily stopped looking at Facebook for periods before: it becomes a pretty awful place in the run up to elections, for example, and I’d tended to opt out.

The difference this time was that I realised that I hadn’t missed it. I had thought that I enjoyed keeping up to date with the antics of schoolfriends and others I haven’t seen in decades, but I came to realise that frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. I’m just not that bothered about the minutiae of the lives of people I would probably no longer recognise on the street.

I was no worse off for not knowing the ins-and-outs of someone’s frustration with the covid one-way system in Tesco, or that the child of someone I barely know has drawn a picture of the virus, or that an acquaintance’s neighbour didn’t join the Clap for Carers. Conversations about these sorts of things are far richer than seeing them written on a screen could ever be. And seeing them baldly written on screen brought out a slightly judging side of my personality of which I’m not terribly fond.

I decided to make my absence a little more permanent. I initially prolonged my period of abstinence, but then came to worry that I might be notable by my absence. What if friends were ‘tagging’ me in posts and I was appearing to ignore them? This didn’t seem fair. And so, I decided to ‘deactivate’ my account.

‘Deactivating’ an account is what one must do on Facebook to keep using Facebook Messenger; it contrasts with ‘deleting’ an account, which removes all data and prevents a person from using any Facebook-badged services. There is no-one I speak to exclusively on Facebook Messenger, so I did ponder for a while whether to delete my account altogether given Facebook’s appalling privacy record. But I reflected that I use other Facebook services such as WhatsApp, so why create hassle for myself? ‘Deactivation’ was for me.

Except, my account mysteriously kept ‘reactivating’, and in a fit of pique when logging on to deactivate again, I got fed up and decided that account deletion was for me after all. I clicked the button… and then a seemingly endless parade of further confirmatory buttons.

I haven’t missed it since.

Oddly, covid briefly drove me back to Twitter. Social distancing’s ability to cancel meetings meant that I was missing my profession network, and I thought that engaging via Twitter might be a good idea. It didn’t work out well.

I engaged in a casual conversation with some microbiology colleagues about a small detail of some guidance with my employer’s logo on it, trying to understand the virological basis behind it. This is exactly the sort of ‘corridor’ conversation I would have in person all the time. It turned out that the guidance was wrong, and some colleagues were, I think, mildly annoyed that I’d had a public conversation about this.

I thought: what’s the point? Better to have conversations away from the febrile atmosphere of Twitter, where anything might end up offending people at any given moment. And so I disengaged again.

It took a long time for me to come to the decision to delete my Twitter account. I knew I didn’t want to use it for work or personal purposes, but I did auto-post to Twitter frequently. For example, my blog posts and Goodreads reviews usually auto-posted, and could lead to some interesting discussions both in person and online.

The problem was the same as for Facebook: what if my lack of attention to ‘mentions’ and messages were taken as a slight?

I initially changed my account name to include the words ‘unmonitored account’ and updated my ‘bio’ to say that I no longer used Twitter. But then, I came to reflect that I’m not self-obsessed enough to truly believe that people want to see my stuff auto-posted despite me not engaging with the service. I decided to delete my account altogether.

I have been surprised by how few people have even noticed my absence on these platforms, or at least asked me about it in person. Even members of my own family haven’t noticed that I’m no longer around on these services. The only time it has come up is when people have asked why they can’t tag me in posts.

I don’t think it has had any real impact on my own life with the exception of removing a complication. I have noticed that I have slightly richer social conversations, because when ‘catching up’ with people, I haven’t already derived most of what they’re telling me from online feeds: but I don’t know whether the other party feels the same way, or whether this is a biased judgement.

I have missed out on some cultural touchstones: I had no idea what Wendy was talking about earlier in the week when she was discussing the fact that Carol Vorderman had been upset, but that’s probably the sort of knowledge I can live without. The comments made by brands of tea about the Black Lives Matter campaign passed me by, but I don’t need advertising through political messaging in my life.

Contrary to much that is written on this topic, leaving these services has not ‘changed my life’ for good or ill. I suspect I’ll re-join these services or their successors in years to come. But the sort of social media offered by these three service is not for me right now. And I’m content with that.

Image credits: The image at the top of the post, showing a mobile phone with the Facebook logo scored out, was posted to Flickr by bookcatalog and is re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The second image is an edited screen capture of the Facebook homepage, made by me. The third image is a version of an image posted to Flickr by TT Marketing, which I have modified and re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The fourth image is a version of a picture posted to Flickr by Cambodia4kidsorg, which I have modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The fifth is another of bookcatalog’s pictures, modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The seventh is modified from an image posted by hedera baltica, re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The eighth and final image, which shows a crater on Mars, was originally posted by mariagat mariagat and has, again, been modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,492nd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , .




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