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30 things I learned in September 2020

1: “We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked.”

2: Reminded of Ogden Nash’s observation that “Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker,” and his later regretful postscript that “Nothing makes me sicker / Than liquor / And candy / Is too expandy.”

3: Artificial banana flavours are usually based on a type of banana which is no longer commonly sold, which is why banana flavour generally doesn’t taste like banana. It’s all the same to me, as I don’t really enjoy either.

4: The Economist says Donald Trump is very likely to challenge the result of the US presidential election. By the time this blog post is published, you’ll have the benefit of hindsight in knowing whether that prediction comes true. As I write this on a bright and windy September morning in Bangor, it feels depressingly hard not to assume—despite the statistical modelling—that Trump won’t somehow win the election without any legal challenge. It’s noticeable how much tighter the odds are at the bookies than in the press: William Hill is offering the same 10/11 odds for both Trump and Biden wins, while The Economist’s tracker has Biden on an 85% chance of winning.

5: Kindles collect more data than you would think.

6: “The pandemic will end. But in India, Tunisia and Peru, there are signs the surveillance will not.”

7: “There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year. There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free-trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”

8: Maps in journalism are hard.

9: “Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe.”

10: “The ‘Moonshot’ scheme is better understood as a benign version of President Trump’s wall: a populist symbol of intent and determination, designed to mobilise public support and confidence, with little or no chance of being completed. It is surely no accident that the plan leaked on the very day that Johnson urged the country to behave with greater responsibility, limited gatherings to six and reminded people to wash their hands, wear masks and observe social distancing. After the stick, this was a carrot-shaped moonshot.”

11: Elisabeth Blik is a leading “image sleuth” in biomedical research. Who knew that was a thing?!

12: London’s bridges really are falling down. “Hammersmith Bridge is an apt metaphor for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic, the last of which has decimated already-stressed public finances.”

13: Her Majesty’s Theatre is in a sorry state:

14: “Everyone has been in a meeting where the most vocal and confident person in the room clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But the most harmful meetings are the ones where that’s happening and the group can’t even recognize it.” I wonder to what extent this problem plagues Government decision-making?

15: A refreshingly clear account of what went wrong with GCSE and A-Level results this summer.

16: I’m reading Lorna Arnold’s account of the accident at Windscale in 1957 at the moment. The opening chapter portrays a small localised part of a national organisation that is undergoing a massive politically driven restructure, which cannot recruit enough professional expert staff to replace those it is losing, let alone to support the enforced expansion. Arnold says, “Windscale was over-worked and under-manned with inadequate research support, but it was a well-run site with hard-working and dedicated staff. They tackled their problems tenaciously, overcame formidable difficulties and met the demands made on them.” The whole section feels like it could be lifted from the inevitable covid-19 inquiry.

17: “The problem with the fall of a democracy is that it doesn’t simply happen, like a rain shower or a thunderstorm. It unfolds, like the slow and steady warming of the climate. Liberties aren’t eliminated, they are restricted and violated – until they erode. Rights aren’t abolished, they are undermined and trampled – until they become privileges. Truths aren’t buried, they are mocked and twisted – until everyone has their own. A democracy doesn’t stumble and fall; it slides into decline.”

18: The Prime Minister, who pledged in April that he would not “throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and risk a second major outbreak” of covid-19 acknowledges that the UK is “now seeing a second wave” of covid-19.

19: Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. She was inspirational in so many ways. Her career-long elucidation of how the whole of society is harmed by discrimination on the basis of sex is a message which is feels still hasn’t been fully absorbed across US and UK society even in 2020.

20: A month ago, I was very sceptical… but Streaks has proven remarkably at convincing me to remember to do important but mundane everyday tasks that I otherwise frequently forget (like flossing).

21: The Government’s peri-peri-ometer is rising back to “hot”.

22: Everyone was in the office, then out, then in, then out. Just one more cycle left before we get to shake it all about, do the hokey-cokey and turn around.

23: It’s 21 years—22 by the time this is published—since I registered my first domain name.

24: It’s not so long ago that Wendy first came across (and was appalled by) Fanny Craddock, thanks to a repeat of her Christmas series, so I read this profile with amusement. (“Her appearance got more striking each year, and by the time of that Christmas series—presented without Johnnie—she resembled a psychedelic Cruella de Vil, her face heavily powdered, her eyebrows plucked and redrawn an inch above her eyes, her hair decorated with large pink ribbons. She was—and still is—magnificently watchable, partly because she’s so elusive; she switches from ingratiating smiles to impatient scowls so quickly that one can’t tell what she’s thinking or feeling, whether she wants to embrace her viewers or rap their knuckles.”)

25: Subscription shoes are (almost) a thing now: when this post goes live in twelve months’ time, they should have launched.

26: The jabot is back in fashion. Apparently.

27: Since Pret launched takeaway coffees by subscription, their shops have been rammed and I’ve had to join a long queue to buy my lunch. The staff in my local shop have been not-so-quietly grumbling about the amount of money the store is losing as a result. It’s hard to know whether a reverse ferret might be coming, or whether this is a “first month” effect (given that the first month is free).

28: “Of systemic action adopted in England for the pre- vention of the importation of infectious diseases, the system of quarantine (in the commonly received sense of that term) performs an extremely small part.” Only written 143 years ago.

29: American presidential debates rarely change election outcomes.

30: FTP is dying.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month: three excellent ones, and three weaker ones.

Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

As COVID-19 has consumed almost all of my working life for the past nineteen months, I’ve been somewhat loath to read even more about it in my spare time. Yet, I found this recently published book by two investigative journalists from The Sunday Times extraordinary, gripping and devastating—and the experience of reading it, mildly reassuring.

The book starts with fifty pages on the history of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, and the likely sources of COVID-19. It then launches into 350 pages covering the response of (mostly) the UK Government to the pandemic up to the end of 2020. People often characterise NewsUK journalists as being supportive of Conservative governments, yet this book, which sticks to a mostly straightforward timeline of events, could not be more damaging to the Government’s claim to have handled the pandemic well.

Perhaps most damning of all is the section at the end where the authors explain that the Government’s response to their criticisms was to deny any errors in their handling of the crisis. It was this book’s elucidation of clear errors and lessons for the future that I found oddly reassuring: reflection, learning and continuous improvement is a cornerstone of any medical practice, and a routine part of health protection. Acknowledgement of errors felt like a return to normality—even where those errors have been on an unrecognisable scale.

Calvert and Arbuthnott include harrowing individual patient stories from the pandemic, which are tough to read. It’s also hard—as they themselves acknowledge—to be certain of how representative of the wider response each of these stories can be. Yet, their inclusion feels important to contextualise decisions and illustrate their human impact.

No work of journalism will ever be perfect, or fully reflect the truth of any situation: the blameless can be blamed, decisions made with the best available information at the time can look foolhardy in hindsight, and the real villains can go without mention. Perhaps Arbuthnott and Calvert are entirely wrong on key facts, or on where decisions were made, or on where they place the blame. But, right or wrong, this book feels like the first draft of the history of the UK Government’s response to the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cure for Good Intentions by Sophie Harrison

Sophie Harrison was an editor at Granta magazine before she decided to retrain as a doctor. She started medical school in 2003—the same year as me—and this memoir of her time at medical school through to her early career as a GP has just been published. I picked this up as I was aware of Harrison’s background and thought it was likely that she would write elegantly about her career, which, I thought, would be quite fun to read. I’ve somehow never really clocked her pieces in the LRB or the Financial Times Weekend, despite regularly reading both.

I thought this book was wonderful: warm and witty, exactly the tone I would like to strike if I had enough talent to write about my own medical training. The fact that Harrison is a contemporary of mine meant that her story brought back many memories from my own training, more-so than the many medical biographies from different eras. Harrison’s background also gives her a literary appreciation for medicine, and there are many references to medicine in literature contrasted with her experiences.

I enjoyed this enormously, more even than I expected. The combination of great writing and the memories it resurfaced as I read made this a real pleasure.

The Bachelor by Andrew Palmer

This recently published debut novel by Andrew Palmer has not received brilliant reviews, yet I very much enjoyed it.

This literary novel is set in the contemporary USA. Its protagonist is a man in his late 20s who has recent split from his “almost-fiancée” and returned to his home town, housesitting for a friend of his mother. The main plot of the book concerns the protagonist’s love life.

Alongside the main plot, the protagonist becomes caught up in watching the reality television series The Bachelor, and also in researching the life of the noted American poet John Berryman. Through these, the book becomes an exploration of the degree to which our perception of the world is real, and—separately—how much of it we believe. For example: is a well-researched biography any more or less ‘true’ than reality TV? And what is it about some aspects of art which allow us to suspend our disbelief and to be constantly questioning others? And why is it that those decisions are rarely rational: we can often end up questioning things we know to be meticulously researched and balanced more than those things which we consciously know to be manipulated.

I have never watched an episode of The Bachelor, though I’m sort of culturally aware of it, and I’m not familiar with the life and work of John Berryman. I can, however, completely relate to getting drawn into reality TV and to becoming deeply interested in a person’s biography. I think that this was perhaps helpful in that I appreciated the context but didn’t get too caught up in the specifics, and allowed me to enjoy the wider points.

Palmer integrates much broader examples into his discussion, including a very interesting bit on the truth of classical music, and the degree to which the composer’s score and the players’ interpretation are in opposition as the ‘reality’ of the music. Having said that, the metaphors do feel occasionally forced, such as the time the protagonist spends living in a house with (literal) glass walls.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this. It was both gentle in tone and plot, but also clever in the ideas it explored and occasional profound in its expression of those ideas. But I appreciate that this isn’t how many others who have read it feel: perhaps it just happened to be right up my street.

Outraged by Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles

This brief 2020 book by Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles argues that outrage on social media is often blown out of proportion, achieves little, and takes attention away from worthier causes and more constructive expressions of disapproval. Charles interviews a couple of people to explore these ideas further: Rachel Dolezal, the campaigner who identifies as black despite being born to white parents, and Katie Hopkins, the controversialist British media personality.

And… that’s it. Perhaps partly because the argument Charles is making seems pretty self-evident to me, I didn’t feel this book added much to the conversation. I enjoyed reading it: in particular, I liked the sense of wit running through it and the juxtaposition of personal anecdote and wider observation. However, I didn’t really feel that I learned much from it, and nor did it really give me any new perspective on the harms associated with social media.

One day, I’m pretty sure we’ll look back on the use of social media by healthcare organisations in the face of accumulating evidence of harm with much the same horror as we today look back on doctors’ promotion of cigarettes—but that’s an argument for another day.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

This recently published novel by Rachel Cusk appeared on the Booker long-list, so clearly has a lot going for it, but I’m afraid it didn’t really do much for me.

Second Place is a ruminative observational novel. After a strange introduction in which the protagonist is chased around Paris by the devil, the main plot point is the protagonist inviting a renowned artist to come and stay in her guest cottage. This is a study of character and the interrelationships of characters, with a particular focus on gender-related power dynamics. Yet, we only get to know about the characters through first-person, unreliable narration from the protagonist. This makes it slightly difficult to work out what is really going on or what anyone’s motivation is.

In the end, this proved to be a little too high concept for me, and not very engaging. I think this book would probably reward a close read with study and reflection, but didn’t work for me as a casually read novel.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Fair warning that this is a bit of a rant.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College is something of a cultural touchstone of my generation, with references turning up frequently and in the oddest of places. Despite this, I’d never actually engaged with it. This problem would have been easy to resolve: a quick internet search brings up the complete text, and an audio recording of the speech is freely available (including in many presentations on YouTube).

But that’s not really my style: no, I chose to engage with this when the 2009 Little, Brown & Company edition was recommended when I was buying some books. It was printed in the US, and according to the dust cover, priced at $15, which makes the price I paid a substantial discount.

The content of the address is fine. The basic universal message is to think compassionately of others, but (as you’d expect from a great writer) it is written in a style which defies convention. I can see why it has stuck in people’s minds and become part of the common canon of my generation.

But the specific hardback book is awful. Presumably because the text is short, and the publisher wants to charge a premium, they’ve chosen to bulk out the length by presenting every sentence on a separate page. There are many examples of talented writers playing with form, but this isn’t one of them. This is a speech, where each line builds on the last to create a coherent whole, and someone has made the decision to butcher it into individual sentences. Some pages have two words on them.

I’m irrationally angry about this because it ruins the meter of the speech, it destroys the sense of an argument gradually building, and—frankly—because it is almost the worst possible way I can think of to convert this speech into a book. Not since I read No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, a book in which the publisher has chosen to collect speeches which have large parts repeated from speech-to-speech, have I felt so annoyed by a production decision.

So do read the text: it’s just shy of 4,000 words, it won’t take you long, and it’s worth it (even if it isn’t totally mind-blowing). But don’t buy this book: read one of the many versions online, or listen to the audio on YouTube.

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