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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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What I’ve been reading this month

In recent months, I’ve had a few conversations with people about my reading preferences.

I very much prefer to read paper books, but it’s not always practical, particularly when catching up for a few minutes on the bus or similar. I therefore very often have both physical and electronic copies of books, and switch between the two. This could be an enormously expensive way of reading, except for the fact that I make extensive use of lending libraries.

I have probably not done enough in these monthly posts to make mention of those libraries. I’m going to try to remember to change that from this month forward.


The Overstory by Richard Powers

Richard Powers’s much-acclaimed 2019 novel is broadly about humanity’s relationship with trees, and the way in which deforestation is effectively harming (ending) the human species.

The structure of this book is used in part to reflect its message: Powers makes the point that trees which appear to be separate are essentially all part of one big interacting forest organism. The first section of the book (“Roots”) introduces a set of nine distinct characters in separate chapters, and then sets about demonstrating how they all interact in one big story (“Trunk” onwards).

This is all very well in theory, but I found that first quarter of the book deathly dull—though I note that one of my Goodreads friends found it to be the best bit. I wasn’t really invested in the characters, and contemplated giving up on the book.

However, from “Trunk” onwards, I thought this was exceptional. It had a combination of first-rate prose, a number of driving plots, and an interesting and well-argued thesis about our relationship with nature which Powers drives home. It was so good, in fact, that this has become one of my favourite books of the year so far, despite the rocky start.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback copy from Newcastle Libraries and an ebook from The London Library.


A Passion for Ignorance by Renata Salecl

A few years ago, I was chairing an outbreak meeting and the subject of whether to perform certain tests on a venue came up. My view was that the tests shouldn’t be carried out as the results wouldn’t change the management plan. I was challenged in this view by others asking: “But why would you choose ignorance?”

The answer is that both taking the tests and not taking the tests involved ignorance, just in different senses of the word. Not taking the test produced ignorance in the sense of not knowing what the outcome would have been; taking the test produced ignorance in the sense of effectively ignoring the result, given that the course of action wouldn’t change.

Renata Salecl’s 2020 book is a wide-ranging discussion of the rationale for ignorance in all its forms. Two of Salecl’s seven chapters focus on health topics: one on genes and one on denial of illness. I was particularly challenged by Salecl’s point on the ethical knots people can get into when a patient chooses not to know their own diagnosis: how can they then ever give informed consent for treatment?

I really enjoyed this book. At 154 pages, it was just the right length to explore its topic and open up room for thought. It was well-written, in that it had clear definitions of ‘ignorance’ and then applied these to different facets of life, bringing new insights as a result. This gave me a lot to think about.

❧ I read a hardback copy from The London Library.


Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams

Eley Williams’s 2017 debut collection of short stories is themed around language and, perhaps, the limits of language in communicating thought. It is a stellar collection which I enjoyed very much for its playful yet meaningful approach. It was only 176 pages long.

It often feels like authors struggle when writing about writing, and fiction with this theme can often feel a bit self-consciously ‘quirky’. Williams completely avoids this trap, writing elegantly and with a large dose of wit, using the theme of language to explore life more broadly.

I really enjoyed this.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback from The London Library and an ebook from Scribd.


Wonderland by Steven Johnson

This 2017 book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite some time, after I enjoyed Johnson’s previous book How We Got to Now. Similar to that book, this one tracks the history of a number of important technological innovations.

This volume concentrates on developments which have resulted from recreational activities. For example, in one section, Johnson takes the history of music and shows (among many other things) how the development of keyboard instruments eventually informed the development of computer keyboards. Other sections cover fashion and shopping, food (with a particular emphasis on spices), illusions, games, and the establishment of public space.

The pleasure of Johnson’s books is in the engaging quality of his storytelling, and this book is no exception.

❧ I read a hardback copy from Newcastle Libraries.


How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Thammavongsa’s 2020 collection of short stories has been one of those books which has been hard to avoid, much-celebrated and much-reviewed. It contains 14 short stories in its 179 pages, and they are all focused on the theme of being an immigrant and something of an outsider.

I enjoyed this book, and as I flick through it now many of the story titles bring a smile to my face. However, I recently read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri which covers broadly similar ground in a broadly similar format, and I think did it a little better.

I would probably be raving more about this book if I had read it at a different time: it really was very good.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback I bought online and an ebook from The London Library.


The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

I felt light reading something relatively light weight and this romantic comedy caught my eye. It is Beth O’Leary’s very popular first novel, published in 2019.

Narration passes between the two protagonists, Tiffy and Leon, chapter by chapter. The premise is that neither can afford to rent a flat in London, but as Leon works nights as a nurse and Tiffy has an office job, they can ‘flat share’ by occupying the flat at mutually exclusive times of day. Thus, they get to know one another through observations and notes left for one another without having met.

The novel was exactly what I was looking for: lightweight fun. There was enough well-written shade to offset the silliness (death and domestic abuse being key themes, both sensitively handled) and to give the book sufficient depth to be interesting.

The writing is good enough to sustain the book. The writing style O’Learly uses for Leon is a little stereotyped and silly, but she draws comedy from this and even had one of the other characters comment on it, which helps to make a joke of the clunkier narration (‘Coldness. Growing low down in stomach. Heart rate ups again. And for all the wrong reasons this time. I’m getting angry again.’)

This wasn’t earth-shattering by any means, but it was exactly what I was looking for, and I think I’ll probably read more of Beth O’Leary’s books as a result.

❧ I read a paperback copy from Newcastle Libraries.


How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell’s 2019 book on ‘doing nothing’ reminded me a lot of Carl Honoré’s 2005 book about ‘slowness’, which I suppose makes some kind of logical sense.

Much like Honoré’s book, Odell’s has some interesting arguments and observations about aspects of life, but they didn’t really coalesce into a convincing whole. In the same way as it wasn’t obvious to me what was ‘slow’ about many of Honoré’s examples, so it isn’t obvious to me why many of Odell’s examples—birdwatching, going to the symphony, reading a book, using alternative methods of farming—count as ‘doing nothing’.

The overall effect is therefore of a meandering book of things that Odell thinks are good in the world, some of which were genuinely interesting, coupled with occasional complaints about social media. I was left thinking… so what’s your point?

❧ I read a hardback copy that I bought online.


No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

This is Patricia Lockwood’s first novel published earlier this year. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, because I had read promising things about its reflection of modern culture, and being the first proper ‘social media’ novel.

Unfortunately, I really didn’t enjoy this. The novel is in two halves, both of which are written in a fragmented style, almost like social media posts. 

I consider myself to be reasonably up-to-date with the online zeitgeist, but the first half of this novel completely lost me. This part establishes the protagonist’s commitment to social media (or the ‘portal’ as Lockwood has it) through lots of references to big ‘moments’ on social media in the late 2010s: I got a few of the references, but most of them went completely over my head. The second half involves a significant (real) life event for the protagonist, which felt less moving to me than I would have expected because of the continuation of the fragmented style.

This didn’t work for me, but perhaps you would feel differently.

❧ I switched back and forth between a signed hardback I pre-ordered online months ago and an ebook from The London Library.

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