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31 things I learned in October 2020

1: I learned about Usutu virus.

2: Donald Trump, who only allows people who have tested negative for covid-19 to be in close proximity, has tested positive for covid-19, underlining the fallacy of relying on other people’s negative test results as the sole protective measure against infection. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson presses on with his moonshot project to provide mass testing so that we can all rely on other people’s negative test results as the sole protective measure against infection. A negative test is only as good as the testing technology—and even if the technology were magically perfect, it still only reflects the moment the test was taken.

3: I’m no fan of spiders (to say the least), but even I found this short article about the venom of funnel web spiders surprising and interesting. The thesis is that the venom is only deadly because it’s not had enough time not to be.

4: Nadia’s story.

5: “It wasn’t only independence-minded Scots who noticed that their country was handling its own coronavirus crisis confidently and – after some horrible early mistakes, principally to do with care homes – more effectively than England. Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, confirmed the growing recognition that decisions made in England were made for England, and that ‘home nations’ could and should stand on their own feet (‘we now have a three-nation approach from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’). Meanwhile, back in London, nobody tried to claim: ‘We are all in this together’ – the slogan used in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and defaced by the monstrous unfairnesses of ‘austerity’. This moment will pass. Covid-19 will gradually disappear from newspaper front pages, and Johnson will return to being a ‘British’ prime minister. And yet the union will never be the same again. A saucy genie of empowerment has escaped from the bottle.”

6: “Shaming is a major and necessary form of social control in any public health emergency. We shame people who cough without covering their mouths or who do not wear masks or do not wear condoms – and we should.” I’m not entirely sure I agree, but this provoked some thoughts.

7: Some people are much braver than me when it comes to getting involved in home renovations!

8: “There appears to be a very deliberate policy to break things up and create an instability in the system. They are doing things they don’t need to do to effect the changes they want. I don’t think it’s all 4D chess plotted out, some of it is instinctive — how they’re treating people in particular. They don’t really care about the consequences or relish them. There is an awful lot of chaos and short-termism. It’s about who they trust and who is on side — it’s a very Trumpian approach.”

9: “Mandela used to tell people a little parable. Imagine that the sun and the wind are contending to see who can get a traveller to take off his blanket. The wind blows hard, aggressively. But the traveller only pulls the blanket tighter around him. Then the sun starts to shine, first gently, and then more intensely. The traveller relaxes his blanket, and eventually he takes it off. So that, he said, is how a leader has to operate: forget about the strike-back mentality, and forge a future of warmth and partnership.”

The combination of extreme pressure and tiredness which characterises the experience of most people in public health at the moment means that warranted frustration—and perhaps grief—is often expressed in a manner that looks a lot like anger. This article helped me to reflect on and unpick some of the true underlying emotions, which aren’t really anger at all… in most cases.

10: “In two years, thousands of tourists and space enthusiasts could be gathering in the far north of Scotland to watch an unlikely event, the inaugural flight of a rocket blasting off from a peat bog usually grazed by deer and sheep.” Only a year away by the time this post is published… or not.

11: “Fellow feeling is the greatest of all human attributes. And even though it is lacking in the world’s most powerful human, and in his desire to be exceptional he does not seek to become the wounded people of his country, we can still spare a thought for his condition with benevolent sympathy — even if we then take time to criticise him properly too.”

12: “The Prime Minister has today set out how the government will further simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three tiered system of local covid Alert Levels in England” and it’s time for another bold and ill-advised prediction from me. Ill-advised because by the time this is published, you’ll know if it’s come true, and I might look like an idiot.

The plan which the Government has announced is scientifically illiterate. Tiers appear to be allocated mostly on the basis of the number of cases in a given area, yet the speed of spread is far more important. An area which has only 10 cases today will have nearly 500 cases within six weeks if the case numbers are growing by 10% per day. An area which has 100 cases today will have only fewer than 250 cases within six weeks if case numbers are growing by only 2% per day.

Restricting only areas with high case numbers is folly. The oft-repeated argument that it’s “unfair” to impose restrictions on areas with low proportions of the population infected is based on a misunderstanding of mathematics.

The fact that the measures at each tier are only aimed at slowing the spread, and won’t be introduced until an area has a high number of cases—regardless of the speed of spread—means that I’m certain we’ll end up with an England-wide lockdown within weeks. It’ll be “stay at home” again, but with schools allowed to remain open this time. I think the Government will be slow to admit the error of the Tier system, so we may well see a new Tier 4 (local “stay at home”) unveiled before then.

And while I’m on a roll… basing restrictions on incident cases is acting far too late. The impact of restrictions takes at least an incubation period to come into effect. Introducing restrictions only when the case numbers are causing the NHS to reach breaking point is damning services to fail. I think Nightingale Hospitals will be taking patients within the month. Probably not covid patients, because that never made much sense as a strategy, but non-covid patients will be admitted to free up beds for the covid surge.

13: “This is the moment where we enter the next phase. It’s going to be really hard to stomach, it’s going to go on for some time, and if people don’t follow the rules then we may have to go further still. People in all areas of the country should be under no illusion, we are back to where we were in March, this is going to be shit and it may get shitter yet.”

14: Like an Italian schoolboy, I’ve learned about Giacomo Leopardi. I think he had exactly the opposite perspective to me on many things.

15: “You should all be writing about the PPE shortage. About a too-late response from a useless and distracted government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything. Whose only thought about state was how to dismantle it as fast as possible. Who thought it was all going to be such a blast, being in power, making lots of money for themselves and their pals.

“You should be writing about how many people have died and are going to die in this country because of this government’s rank carelessness. They’re saying twenty thousand deaths will be good. Good!

“Get them writing. About how the hedgefunders have made billions already out of what’s happening. Billions going into their accounts from other people’s losses, while nurses and doctors and cleaners have to wear binliners. Binliners. A government treating them like rubbish. The NHS is not happy to let people die. That’s the difference between them and this government, happy to count the heads of their so-called herd, like we’re cattle, like they think they own us and have the right to send thousands of us to slaughter to keep the money coming in. Peevish. Too focused on their infantile Brexit obsession to accept offers of help and equipment from our neighbours.

“Write about how the people who’ve never been properly valued are all holding this country together. The health workers and the everydayers, the deliverers, the postmen and women, the people working the factories, the supermarkets, the ones holding all our lives in their hands. Write about that. The mighty Etonians brought low one more time and the meek revealed as the real might after all.”

16: “Everyone knows what you do in the bathroom, but you still close the door. In other words, your info may not be a secret, but it should remain private” by default.

17: Readwise reminded me of this lesson from a book I read some years ago: “Can you assess the danger a criminal poses by examining only what he does on an ordinary day? Can we understand health without considering wild diseases and epidemics? Indeed the normal is often irrelevant. Almost everything in social life is produced by rare but consequential shocks and jumps.”

18: I recently finished reading Ali Smith’s Summer, the extraordinary finale to her seasonal quartet. This article in the London Review of Books made me realise how much more there is to the whole series than I derived on my casual read. Maybe a series to revisit at some point.

19: I’m distinctly average.

20: “Johnson used his press conference on 9 September to dangle some hopeful news. The government, he revealed, had a plan for mass testing – a “moonshot” attempt to make quick, simple tests available at scale by next year.

“As more details of the “moonshot” emerged, the more absurd it seemed. Leaked documents revealed the plan to roll out between 6-10 million rapid tests per day at a cost of £100bn – a figure so high that some sceptics thought it was a typo.

“Roche, one company manufacturing the tests, estimated in early September that it would be able to make 80 million units a month only by the end of the year. Even then, the company’s entire global monthly manufacturing capacity would serve the UK’s moonshot for less than a fortnight.

“The plans have little basis in reality. If experience is any guide, the idea that this government could competently keep track of millions more test results every day is little short of farcical.”

21: With rumination, people can make very precisely cutting comments: “On the very rare occasion Linda Barker is on television now, when I do see her, she’s still very bouncy, and I just don’t think she earned the bounce.”

22: I learned about a famous photograph of the corium “elephant’s foot” at Chernobyl.

23: There are times when, even after all this time, Trump’s attacks on the fundamentals of democracy retain the power to shock: “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and…we’ll have a very peaceful. There won’t be a transfer. Frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

24: Less than half of the population knows the three cardinal symptoms of covid-19 infection, and fewer than a fifth of those advised to self-isolate actually follow the rules according to the Covid-19 Rapid Survey of Adherence to Interventions and Responses study. I’m surprised more by the former than the latter: for many, a lack of support makes full self-isolation a unviable, and “best efforts” are worthwhile anyway.

25: The Government chose to outsource NHS Test and Trace to Serco, who then themselves outsourced it to many other companies. There is a strong suspicion that the Government does not know even how many companies are now involved, let alone who they are.

According to Bernard Jenkin, who somehow manages to avoid mentioning outsourcing or any private company in his analysis, “there is a spaghetti of command and control at the top, which is incapable of coherent analysis, assessment, planning and delivery.”

One of the dominant narratives about the UK Government response to covid-19 is that the UK was well prepared, but for the “wrong kind of pandemic”.

A command and control structure is required for any pandemic: indeed, it’s probably the keystone. The plan wasn’t for “spaghetti”. The plan wasn’t for the Government to set up a Joint Biosecurity Centre nor a Covid Task Force nor to abolish the single national organisation providing health protection expertise.

Spaghetti doesn’t just appear. It doesn’t grow on trees. Ignoring the long-standing plan, outsourcing to countless private companies, creating public organisations on the fly, abolishing established players half way through, and sprinkling people with no relevant qualifications or expertise at the top; it all adds up to a Government spaghetti recipe of which even Nigella would be proud.

26: “In 40 years of reporting and broadcasting about politics, daily and most weekends, I’ve never known a time when rational, mature leadership has been more needed and yet been so wretchedly absent. Is it too much to ask our leaders to treat people as adults, and to grow up themselves?

Of course, it is possible that this crisis might have been handled worse. But, if I’m being perfectly honest, I can’t immediately see how that might have been accomplished.”

27: HM Government’s top-line advice for people who are in a large indoor shopping centre and feel that they have symptoms of covid-19 appears to be to whip out one’s mobile and book a test—not to immediately self-isolate. This is a surprising approach to controlling spread of a respiratory virus.

28: “For London, 2020 was just about the worst possible time to confront a global pandemic. The UK, which has always prided itself on being one of the most stable democracies in the world, was already uncertain about its future with an untested new government and a prime minister who many even in his own party considered ill qualified for the job. Despite all his bluster and attempts at Churchillian rhetoric, Boris Johnson has done nothing to dispel those doubts. Far from offering decisive, effective leadership, he and his ministers and advisors have spread confusion and eroded public trust – with disastrous consequences.”

29: “When you tell Chrome to wipe private data about you, it spares two websites from the purge: Google and YouTube.”

30: “We’re all mired in vague unarticulated anxiety right now, and tidying provides you with a strong foundation to ask questions of yourself: ‘What’s important to me right now? How do I want to live?’” I feel a very strong desire to write something snarky about this quote… but then I think there may be some truth to it.

31: It turns out that a year of hindsight wasn’t needed to assess item 12 on this list: patients are arriving at Nightingale hospitals and lockdown is back. Unless, of course, I just did a Cummings and retrospectively edited my predictions to fit.

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

What I’ve been reading this month

There are seven books that I’ve read in October that I’d like to tell you about.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The first word that comes to mind to describe Elif Shafak’s recently published novel is ‘magical’. At its heart is a love story in between a Greek Christian (Kostas) and a Turkish Muslim (Defne) on Cyprus in the 1970s, just as the violent coup divided the island along those very lines. But this isn’t only a love story: it’s a story of how history echos for future generations, with the novel moving backwards and forward in time between 1970s Cyprus and 2010s London.

In the 2010s, Kostas and Defne’s teenage daughter Ada is mourning her mother’s recent death and having a difficult time of doing so, partly because of the influence of social media. Ada’s parents have fiercely protected Ada from their traumatic past in Cyprus and brought her up to consider herself to be British. The arrival of Ada’s Cypriot maternal aunt pierces that barrier (and also brings with her a whole load of charming Cypriot aphorisms).

Complex human emotions are obviously in abundance. Shafak’s masterstroke is to make one of the main narrators a fig tree: and what a fig tree! The tree itself was displaced from Cyprus to London along with the family. She (and yes, it is a she) brings her own altered perception of the passage of time, and a warm appreciation for the complex emotional relationships between the characters, and between the characters and their countries.

And the ending was breathtaking.

I’ve only read one other novel by Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was one of my favourite books of 2020. The Island of Missing Trees is entirely different, yet certainly one of my favourite books of 2021. I can’t wait to make my way through her back catalogue.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Just out in hardback, this is John Boyne’s new comedic novel, which skewers society’s obsession with social media. The epigraph is from Umberto Eco, and summaries the thesis succinctly:

Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.

The main characters make up the Cleverley family, all five members of whom are irredeemably awful people. George, the patriarch, is the host of a BBC TV chat show which has been running for decades. Beverley, his wife, is nominally a writer of romance novels, though makes extensive use of ghostwriters. Alike with their three young adult children, the two hold themselves in unfathomably high esteem. Each member of the family makes use of social media for self-promotional purposes.

As with Boyne’s last novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the plot is fairly ridiculous. The previous novel used a mad plot as an opportunity to string together a series of moments of high emotional drama. This novel uses one to string together a series of laugh-out-loud set pieces into one long downward spiral of farcical consequences. This is a very funny book, with lots of satirical contemporary references. (And, to note, Maude Avery—one of my favourite literary characters after her introduction in the previous novel—is referenced several times in this one.)

While this is a skewering of social media, it’s hard not to notice that social media delivers justice in the book, albeit by perverted misguided means. Through that authorial decision, Boyne leaves some interesting questions to ponder, rather than just writing off the whole medium.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Sad Little Men by Richard Beard

This recently published polemic against England’s private boarding schools for boys had me riveted from start to finish. This book is a reckoning with the emotional and character damage inflicted on Beard by being sent off to boarding school at the age of eight. It is also a condemnation of the impact of these schools on the country at large, given the astonishing proportion of senior figures in public life who share this background. This includes twenty-eight of the last thirty-two Prime Ministers (an astonishing statistic, even if the school lives of people born in the early 1800s ought to have little relevance to a twenty-first century argument).

This isn’t a balanced book: it is passionate, angry, withering, and all the more readable for it. That said, it is written with enough subtlety to allow us to feel sympathy for the immediate ‘victims’ as children. This is no mean feat given the illustration of the devastating, sometimes deadly, consequences for the rest of us as their adult sense of confidence and entitlement outstrips their competence.

While not discussed in the book at any length, this made me view from a new perspective the frequent political talk about ‘British values’—a soundbite often used but rarely defined. I’ve often thought that it’s essentially a dog whistle for racism. However, Beard’s book made me reflect that it perhaps has a whole other layer, recalling the perverted ‘values’ of class preservation and emotional repression that seem associated with these institutions.

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

This recently published semi-autobiographical first novel by Jarred McGinnis opens with the main character in his mid-20s waking up in hospital following a car accident. He learns that his passenger has been killed and that he has suffered spinal cord damage which has rendered his legs paralysed. From there, McGinnis follows the story forward, to find out how Jarred learns to live with his disability. In alternating chapters, we also follow Jarred’s childhood in a violent home, and his reaction to his mother’s death early in his life.

What emerges is a portrait of a complex man, flawed in myriad ways and—maybe like us all—affected in profound ways by both his upbringing and life events. In particular, Jarred’s changing relationship with his father is explored: having run away from his alcoholic father and having not spoken for several years, his accident means that he ends up living back in his childhood home with his father caring for him again.

This is a book of complex and ever-changing relationships, filled with characters which feel real and multi-faceted. Somehow, despite the darkness, the book feels somehow up-lifting. It is also hilarious, filled with dry wit and very dark humour.

This was off-beat, moving, tender and laugh-out-loud funny.

Lord by João Gilberto Noll

I read Edgar Garbelotto’s 2008 translation of this short and very strange 2004 novel about a Brazilian writer who comes to the UK at the invitation of a Londoner. The protagonist is confused from the start, and descends into further confusion as the novel progresses. It’s always dangerous to diagnose a fictional character, but this seems to be a portrait of some sort of dementia.

In essence, this is a very readable study of what it is like to lose your sense of person, place and time—involving a surprising and perhaps disturbing number of casual sexual encounters. There are several points where it is unclear whether the narrated events are simply confections of the protagonist’s confused mind, or whether they have some basis in the novel’s reality.

This is precisely the right length, in that it can easily be consumed in a single sitting and doesn’t drag to the point that the confusion just begets reader frustration. Instead, the novel is rather reflective and thought-provoking.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

I read Tanya Leslie’s 1993 translation of Ernaux’s 1991 autobiographical essay about the passion she felt during her affair with a married man. I picked this up after seeing Eric’s Lonesome Reader review.

Choosing to try to translate the overwhelming intensity of feeling into a short book is an interesting enterprise. The autobiographical nature of the work also means that there is a superimposed layer of societal judgement on Ernaux’s essay, which she tries to disregard but perhaps concentrates on more as a result of the attempt.

I particularly liked Ernaux’s honesty in exploring the darker aspects of her passion: even very intense positive feelings have their immediate downsides, as does the longing between encounters. All-consuming feelings consume the positives as well as negatives.

A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

I read this 2004 novel in its 2008 English translation by John Brownjohn. I had picked this book up having seen several reviews which compared it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which is one of my favourite novels.

Sulzer’s novel is mostly set in 1930s Switzerland, where Erneste works as a waiter in a grand hotel. He has a passionate affair with a younger waiter, Jakob, and their perceptions vary as to the significance of the relationship. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Ernest as an older man, looking back on his time with Jakob after the latter has re-established contact after many years.

To me, this book shared few similarities with the Ishiguro novel. The main theme of Ishiguro’s novel is of regret at a life spent in service of the wrong ideals. The main theme of Sulzer’s novel is the limits of the extent to which we can ever know the lives and minds of other people. In theme and emotion, the two are fundamentally different, and I’m not sure the comparison is fair or helpful.

The writing was also less good: Ishiguro’s novel was evocative of its setting and time, whereas I didn’t find Sulzer’s transporting, more because the prose seemed humdrum than because the setting was unremarkable. Ishiguro’s novel clouds deep attachment in the language of restrained period ’Englishness’ whereas Sulzer’s novel reads as just a little oddly detached from his central characters.

This was just a bit disappointing, but perhaps the comparison meant that it was always destined to be.

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Five links worth clicking

The first in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.

The UK faces an energy crisis. Could nuclear play a vital role?

In this article for the FT Weekend, Jonathan Ford provides some great analysis and colour around the decommissioning of end-of-life nuclear power plants and the function of the Sellafield site in dealing with nuclear waste.

Everyone knows that midday desert sun can be harmful if one lies in it without protection. And everyone knows that moonlight is essentially harmless. Yet, moonlight and sunshine are made up of the same photons. The former is simply harmless because it is 400,000 times less bright than sunshine. Nuclear radiation can be like sunlight, and it can be like moonlight.

When I think of decommissioning a nuclear power plant, I think of dealing with prodigious quantities of radiation. I’ve never thought about the compounding effect of radiation on the other hazardous materials on site, such as asbestos: and, of course, the vintage of the estate being decommissioned means there’s plenty of that around.

Last year, I read Lorna Arnold’s investigation into the Windscale fire of 1957 which the Ford mentions at the start of this article. If you like Ford’s article, you might also like Arnold’s book.

And if you wonder what’s driving up energy prices, James Meek’s recent article in the LRB is revealing.

File not found

This fascinating article for The Verge by Monica Chin discusses the fact that younger people are unfamiliar with both the concept of directory filing in computing and the underlying metaphors the system represents. This is presenting particular problems for students studying STEM subjects where they need to use command-line interfaces, which are reliant on exact descriptions of file locations.

Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganised. I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.

This rings true in my life, too. I’m the youngest of four consultants in our team at work, and the only one who doesn’t have folders in which to file emails. I rely entirely on search to find things, having made the shift after reading evidence that this method was far more efficient. Though I’ll confess that I recently moved from storing everything in Outlook’s ‘Deleted Items’ to storing everything in a gigantic ‘Archive’ folder out of fear that some system administrator might commit the heinous crime of deleting my ‘Deleted Items’.

However, perhaps indicative of my ‘in-between’ age, I still use structured directories for files, mostly because the search functions in the file storage systems I use are pretty poor. On Apple systems, I do use tags to cross-cut my directory structure (with, for example, a tag called ‘Work – needs updating’ and another called ‘Work – quick reference’) but I’m mostly a file-structure kind of person.

I wonder if this is something me and my colleagues need to rethink. We have an intricately structured shared drive at work, and yet I note that many of my (mostly younger) colleagues have desktops resembling that described by Peter Plavchan in the above quotation. Maybe we need a collective system that’s more searchable and less navigable. Though, of course, the latter is the problem: a ‘big bucket’ approach to file management isn’t great for discovery, or for going back years later to locate something vaguely recollected which was created by someone who has since left the organisation.

I’m very forgetful. I can lead big projects and, within a year, forget that I’ve done them. If I regularly had to encounter an email directory structure that referenced the project, maybe I’d retain the knowledge for longer. Perhaps a search-based approach is poorer for mental retention.

Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

This Wallpaper article by Harriet Lloyd-Smith may essentially be advertorial for a recently published photo book, but oh my it features some beautiful photographs of dilapidated cinemas by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

There’s beauty in the flaking paint, opulence in the rows of tattered crushed-velvet seats, stories retained in the defunct equipment and abandoned concession stands. Laughs, tears, screams and gasps live on in the crumbling cornices.

I’ve long been a bit of a sucker for this kind of photography. There’s something about the way it reminds me that “this too shall pass” that I find oddly comforting. Nothing lasts forever.

A piano down a mine

This Van piece by Hugh Morris is an entertaining discussion of comedy based on classical music: the sort of stuff Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey get up to.

The idea of good humor punching up is key. But mocking the conventions of a musical culture which is fundamentally a bit silly—people dress up in old-fashioned outfits to play music from ages ago for a group of people sitting in complete silence—comes with a warning. While it’s easy to mock classical music’s foibles, those gags can easily be perceived as jibes or slights, which can then underpin whole ecosystems’ oddly negative behaviors.

This is one to click on when you’ve time to click through and watch the various cited routines, rather than just as something to read. Some of them were new to me, and others I was amused by revisiting. It also brought this delightfully silly story about an error in the Welsh Government’s coronavirus guidance to my attention for the first time.

For my money, the article could have been rounded out with at least a passing mention of Mozart in the Jungle as a recent(ish) TV dramedy in this arena which I very much enjoyed. What other series would invite Lang Lang for a cameo and overdub him with Daft Punk—to brilliant effect?

Bo Burnham: Inside

This Netflix lockdown special by musical comedian Bo Burnham is excellent. It was written, directed and filmed solely by Burnham in a room of his house, which seems an extraordinary achievement.

But still more interesting is how Burnham brings his occasionally dark sense of humour to the experience of lockdown life, and openly and frankly discusses the mental health aspects (including his own pre-lockdown mental health problems). This turns his comedy special into something quite moving, and surprising insightful, as well as very funny.

I know Bo Burnham isn’t for everyone, and indeed he’s never really made much impact on this side of the Atlantic, but I think this comedy special is well worth watching.

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