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30 things I learned in November 2020

1: I’ve managed to keep a series of posts on my blog running for a year rather than giving up after about a month.


2: William Barr is someone we may be hearing more about in the coming days.


3: I recently read Lawrence Douglas’s Will He Go? and the first 24 hours after the polls closed in the US presidential election have been just as mad as he predicted. But I wasn’t convinced by Douglas’s arguments on the abolition of the Electoral College, and Ian Frazier’s piece in the New York Review which I read this morning strengthened my view. (I also realised this morning how mad the dating of New York Review issues is: it’s more than two weeks before the cover date and I’m reading a printed copy in Newcastle!)


4: Airline seatbelts are quite interesting.


5: A large survey of English adults conducted in May by researchers in Oxford found that “almost half think covid-19 may have been deliberately engineered by China against ‘the West’. Between a fifth and a quarter are ready to blame Jews, Muslims or Bill Gates, or to give credence to the idea that ‘the elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government’; 21 per cent believe – a little, moderately, a lot or definitely – that 5G is to blame, about the same number who think it is ‘an alien weapon to destroy humanity.’”

Once I’d recovered from the pain of that revelation, the same article delivered a good belly-laugh: “There’s a danger that in writing about QAnon – a social phenomenon not just in the US but in Britain, Germany and many other countries, and endorsed by a number of Republican candidates – you make it sound more interesting and mysterious than it is. It is interesting, but in the way hitting yourself in the face with a hammer is interesting: novel, painful and incredibly stupid.”


6: Channel 4 is seizing on US electoral chaos to advertise the availability of The West Wing on their streaming service, and even just seeing the trailers makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy.


7: “There are huge opportunities for using data science to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of care. These opportunities are being needlessly neglected through a lack of clear career paths, and a historic failure to harness existing best practice into a commons of knowledge. But there is a vast skilled workforce that could, through use of open methods and structured support from the NHS, rapidly deliver an explosion in high-quality, verifiable, shared analytics.”

Disastrous data management, and a critically poor understanding of the relationship between population level data and individual clinical care, is one of the as-yet untold stories of the failure of covid-19 control in England. I hope we learn from that, and build upon those lessons to do everything Goldacre and co suggest.


8: Some of the best books of 2020 don’t actually exist.


9: Amazon has only just launched in Sweden. It didn’t go well, with the retail giant encountering problems both serious and trivial. “For reasons known only to Amazon itself, the Argentine rather than the Swedish flag was placed next to the word Sweden on the site’s country picker. Then there were the disastrous automatic translations that saw a cat-themed hairbrush described using the Swedish slang for ‘vagina’ (clearly the result of a direct translation of ‘pussy’), a children’s puzzle featuring yellow rapeseed flowers described as having a ‘sexual assault flower motif’, and football shirts labeled as ‘child sex attack shirt’.”

It all reminded me a little of this (which surely counts as pre-historic in internet terms).


10 : “The PM is given to expansive rhetoric and ‘Moonshot’ ambitions; if mere words could defeat a pandemic and conceal the tearing up of a treaty, he would be carried shoulder high up Whitehall.”


11: Mass testing for covid-19 is now well underway in Liverpool, but questions remain about the effectiveness of the assessment of the pilot. “The Department of Health is being incredibly secretive about how this pilot is going to be evaluated. There’s a National Screening Committee which we’ve had in the UK for 20 years, and they’ve been sidelined from this. There’s a big concern that we’re not going to learn what we should because we don’t know what studies are being done alongside it, and the right scientists haven’t been involved … We still have public health teams who are underfunded to do track and trace, and people have been saying for six months that’s the way to control things on a national scale. There’s a cost effectiveness question here, and it’s not a case of mass testing or nothing. It’s this or some of the other alternatives.”


12: There was a time, not that long ago, when politicians disagreed civilly, and leaders clarified misconceptions about their opponents and worked to raise the tone of public discourse.


13: Paul Flynn’s interview with Sarah Jessica Parker in the latest Happy Reader made me reflect on the differences in our responses to Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, and contemplate the everyday sexism those responses perhaps reveal. As Parker and Flynn point out, why are Soprano’s murders downplayed and yet Bradshaw’s profligate spending on fashion overplayed in popular notions of those characters?


14: Once upon a time, computer mice with built-in telephones were a thing.


15: “Most sex between giraffes is homosexual: in one study, same-sex male mounting counted for 94 per cent of all sexual behaviour observed.”


16: Reading about how dismissive rudeness was at least part of the underlying cause of the downfall of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings. In some ways, it feels like a repeat of the same mistakes Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were perceived to have made. Civility in seniority is perhaps an under-rated quality among those making the appointments.


17: In an order confirmation email, fashion and homeware retailer Next says “we are working incredibly hard to get your items to you.” They apparently underestimate my credulousness.


18: This book taught me that the Olympic torch relay is an entirely modern creation, a Nazi idea introduced for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.


19:  I find it hard to disagree that “the pandemic has brutally exposed a centre that has control over the country’s resources but does not know what’s happening on the ground.”


20: The Home Secretary has engaged in “forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing” which left some Civil Servants upset. The implication of the Prime Minister judging her not to have broken the Ministerial Code is that this was not “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable.” Which either means the Prime Minister doesn’t believe shouting and swearing to be intimidating or insulting, or that he doesn’t believe those who claim to have been upset, or that he doesn’t believe the Home Secretary engaged in the behaviour described. The Government’s statement isn’t clear on which of these is the case.


21: While pondering whether I should send an email at work today, I caught myself reflecting on Marcus Aurelius and Meditations. This is completely ridiculous, embarrassingly knobbish, surprisingly frequent and really quite helpful, all at the same time.


22: Some big wotsits were towed out of the Port of Tyne this afternoon. I assume they were bits of oil rigs, but don’t really know.


23: This book taught me the depressing word hemoclysm (coined by an American, so no ‘a’ or ‘æ’).


24: For a few years, while I was contributing to some guidelines, NICE used to invite me to their annual conference as a guest. One of the most memorable presentations in the years I attended was one on the extraordinary results of getting GPs to opportunistically remind older people not to sleep with their bedroom windows open: something that was commonly advised decades ago but which led to many older people sleeping in rooms which were unhealthily cold. A simple clarification in this DHSC campaign could have saved lives; I worry that the lack of one may do the opposite.

httpv://youtube.com/watch?v=qYZMOG2kUWg


25: Twenty-six fire have broken out on buses in Rome this year alone. “The most dramatic incident occurred in the early hours of Saturday when an out-of-service bus burst into flames in the Aurelio neighbourhood. As the driver leapt to safety the heat melted the brakes, sending the bus rolling down a shopping street, torching six parked cars and four mopeds as it passed, causing a shop front to disintegrate in the heat and the windows of ground-floor apartments to explode. The bus, which was purchased seven years ago, eventually careered into a line of dustbins, setting them on fire as it slowed to a halt.”


26: I’ve never really thought about what happens to sailors when shipping companies collapse. It turns out it’s complicated and distressing.


27: I’ve never given a lot of thought to the logic of art restoration, but this article made me think about it. “Over a hundred years ago, the United States Army began looking into turning the Statue of Liberty back to her original copper color. ‘As might be expected, when the Statue of Liberty turned green people in positions of authority wondered what to do,’ writes Frazier. ‘In 1906, New York newspapers printed stories saying that the Statue was soon to be painted. The public did not like the idea.’ In the end, nothing was done. Change was accepted, and we let her green skin stay. And like a word moving through years, shifting its meaning, she continues to change, ever so slightly.”


28: It’s the first frost of the season, and the first day I’ve felt the need to don gloves for the walk to work.


29: This is a fantastic review of the human biological impact of space flight. In summary: it’s complicated.


30: Some people feel so strongly that face masks are unsafe that they scrawl messages on walls. I’m not sure what specific harms concern the author(s).

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

What I’ve been reading this month

This has felt like a month where I haven’t read much, but the above photo suggests otherwise. I think it is just that this has been a very long month: it seems like a very long time since I read some of these!


Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith

This 1950 biography was first recommended to me in a conversation seven years ago, and has cropped up with some regularity since. The recommendation has always been accompanied by the comment that this book is hard to get hold of as it is out of print. Copies do now seem to be available on Amazon, but I read a copy from The London Library.

It is astonishingly good.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the subject of this biography was clearly remarkable. I hadn’t previously appreciated the full breadth of Nightingale’s achievements or the strength of her character, and I was blown away.

Secondly, this is brilliantly written. The prose is exact, the subject matter is well-organised and clearly explained, and the depth of the underlying research almost drips off the page. It feels like it could have been published today, and yet is a little over seventy years old. This is one of those biographies that gives real insight into the character of the subject, and draws out clear lessons from their life: it is so much more than a list of facts. I can scarcely believe that this was Woodham-Smith’s first history book: hers was clearly a remarkable talent.

Perhaps those who know a little more about Nightingale’s life would take less from this than I did, but this is one of my favourite books of the year.


The Status Game by Will Storr

I’ve raved about Will Storr for a long time: his talent as a writer and a journalist is truly remarkable, and he deserves every accolade. His byline on one of his signature long-form newspaper or magazine articles guarantees a fascinating read and new insights, even if the subject at hand isn’t something that appears immediately interesting.

It’s therefore no surprise at all that I loved this recently published book of his about social status and how it drives human psychology. His argument is that the acquisition of social status drives everything we do, without our realisation, and even when we believe we are acting altruistically. We all want to be heroes.

As in all of his writing, Storr takes a broad view of his topic. His discussion encompasses serial killers, social media ‘celebrities’, the history of religion, and (slightly less convincingly) the rise of the Nazis. He writes very interestingly on psychology, and how each person’s perception of the world differs markedly. Storr’s storytelling style holds the text together, with an appreciable dash of wry humour.

Storr’s insights always live long in my memory, perhaps because I enjoy his writing so much, and perhaps because of his memorable storytelling style.

While I loved this book, I’m not sure whether it’s the first I’d recommend to people new to Storr’s writing as his central thesis (while convincing to me) might prove a bit of a barrier: I’d perhaps suggest that Selfie is the best starting point (or his reams of journalism).


Spider Woman by Lady Hale

This recently published autobiography by the former President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was absorbing and inspiring.

This is Lady Hale’s account of her professional life, from her time at school and through her legal career. Her passion for her subject shines through on every page: there are not many people who could be so excited by an exam question as for it to feature in their autobiography, but it happens in here. Her enthusiasm is infectious. It is clear, too, especially from Hale’s accounts of complex family law cases, how much she is interested in the effects of the law on “real people’s lives”.

Beyond her childhood, Hale touches only very lightly on her personal life, though I was moved by the deeply personal “afterthoughts”.

Mostly, though, I found this book inspiring. Hale’s dedication to her profession, and her strength and stamina—even in the face of endless sexism—are remarkable.


A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

This 2004 short novel was another recommendation from my friend Julie, who previously recommended Flagg’s Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! which I enjoyed earlier this year.

This is an inconsequential but heartwarming story about a dying man moving from a city to a small rural town in the southern United States. It’s a book that all about generating warm feelings with a gentle pace, straightforward plot and a cast of entirely good-natured characters (one of whom is a redbird).

This isn’t a book with any great life lessons or new insights into character; rather, it’s a lovely, heartwarming yarn which I found to be a very relaxing read.


Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

This is the American humourist’s first volume of diary extracts, published in 2017 and covering 1977 to 2002. If you are familiar with Sedaris’s work, you’ll know what to expect: wry but insightful observations on growing up in the USA, plus life in Paris and the UK.

As you might expect, I found Sedaris’s earlier writing (before he began writing professionally) less engaging than his later work, but I enjoyed this nevertheless.


Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci

Published this month, this is Iannucci’s parody of an epic poem telling the story of the UK Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. It is brief, and yet by turns silly, quotable, depressing and very funny. Andy Riley’s illustrations are quite brilliant, fitting the tone and content of the book while also adding their own dimension.

However, I think the fact that every day at work Is still dominated by the pandemic means that I don’t have the psychological distance from recent events to enjoy this to the full.


The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This recent publication is one of six novels by Korelitz, and the only one I’ve read. The novel follows Jacob ‘Finch’ Bonner, a down-on-his-luck author who we first meet as a teacher on a writing programme.

An irritatingly over-confident student of Bonner’s has a plot for a book which he considers to be guaranteed massive literary success. The student outlines the plot to Bonner, and then dies before finishing his work, only a few pages of which Bonner has seen. Bonner then appropriates the student’s plot without attribution, has an incredible hit, and begins receiving threatening messages from someone who knows his ‘terrible secret’. This is standard thriller territory.

I picked this up because of reading endless rave reviews. I was familiar with the outline of the plot, and thought it would be fun to read a book which, through its own premise, would have to cleverly work its way around revealing the plot of the book concerned. After all, it wouldn’t be possible to write a convincing novel about a spectacular, world-altering book and also reveal the contents of that book. I assumed it would need to be tightly constructed, probably with a dose of humour, to build tension around something that could never be convincingly revealed.

It turns out that the book isn’t nearly that clever. The character’s plot is explored at length, and we even get extracts from the character’s book. The plot of the character’s book is also pretty standard thriller fare, which means that it doesn’t really support the superstructure the novel builds around it.

Korelitz also introduces some discussion about the morality of retelling stories, comparing this with cultural appropriation in a way which seems to misunderstand the long tradition of the former and the ethical challenge of the latter.

This was a good holiday thriller, but wasn’t nearly the complex, layered, literary novel the reviews (and perhaps my preconceptions) had led me to expect.


All In It Together by Alwyn Turner

This is a recently published history of UK politics in the years 2000 to (roughly) 2015, told mostly from the perspective of the newspaper coverage of the time. Turner tries to place the politics in a context though plentiful references to popular media.

I was surprised that I found this a bit of a slog. For example, Turner devotes many more pages to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown than to the 2005 London bombings, which is a curious approach. For all the strange choices, Turner never reaches broader conclusions nor draws out the hidden themes behind the history of the times. As a result, this ended up feeling like an eclectic collection of stories with little unifying thread, and I was left wondering what point (if any) Turner was trying to make.


Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

I read this famous 1951 fictional memoir in the 1954 translation by Grace Frick, in a London Library volume which has been borrowed more than two dozen times before I was born. It takes the form of a letter written by Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on his life.

This book has been recommended to me several times, is well-loved by friends, and highly rated on Goodreads. It’s therefore a bit awkward to admit that I didn’t really enjoy it.

There is much to like: I took numerous quotations from the book and enjoyed its reflective and somewhat melancholy tone, especially towards the end. However, for reasons I can quite put my finger on, I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief and become absorbed in this book. I kept questioning what was fact and what was fiction, and whether Hadrian really would have seen things in the way Yourcenar suggests. This is partly because my knowledge of Roman history is weak.

The overall effect was that I felt like I read this at a remove, rather than becoming emotionally involved. The result of that was that it felt more like studying a text than becoming immersed in a novel. While that’s not an experience I’m totally averse to, it isn’t what I expected or hoped for from this book.

I often think that we only connect with books if they find us in the right mood. Perhaps I just read it at the wrong time.


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Five links worth clicking

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


We Tried On a Kylie Jenner Swimsuit so You Wouldn’t Have To

I’m in the perhaps fortunate position of having really no knowledge of Kylie Jenner. I don’t know what she’s famous for, and I couldn’t pick her out of a line-up. Yet, it seems she has designed some bestselling swimwear, and Flora Gill’s review in Air Mail made me laugh out loud.

While wearing the triangle bikini top, every crevice of my breast was clearly visible; if my nipples were braille, they’d be in caps lock.

But for me the real issue came with the bikini bottom. Here I found myself having to make a decision I don’t often debate with my clothing: Would I rather show my butt crack or my entire bush?

It appears that the power of celebrity to sell knows no bounds.


A decent death

I’ve long been in favour of assisted suicide in theory, though never been entirely convinced that the necessary safeguards could be implemented in practice. I’ll admit that it’s not a topic I’ve given a great deal of thought to recently, but knowing that there have been successful schemes around the world for decades now, I’m probably willing to concede the latter point.

It’s the former point on which Stephen Sedley concentrates in his article for the LRB, plus the politics of the topic. It’s one of those articles that is fascinating from beginning to end, though I accept he’s preaching to the converted. These sentences in particular struck me:

The theological interdictions were not limited to the belief, spoken or unspoken, that all terminal suffering, whatever its degree and duration, was God’s will and not to be curtailed. Anaesthesia was for years opposed on the same ground.

I had no idea that there had been a religious objection to anaesthesia. It’s a fact that feels so loaded with potential for analogy that I’m amazed I’ve never come across it before.

In the same issue, Frederick Wilmott-Smith has a short piece on the US Supreme Court and Texas’s Senate Bill 8, severely limiting access to abortion, which contains this harrowing pair of sentences:

One child, raped by a family member, took an eight-hour journey from Galveston to Oklahoma to get an abortion. Many – principally those without the means to travel out of state – will simply be unable to obtain abortions.

Combined with much else from the last few years, it’s hard not to wonder whether the still-young experiment of the US approach to Government and democracy may be taking a dark turn.


Stop telling kids they’ll die from climate change

According to an article in Wired by Hannah Ritchie,

A recent survey asked 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries about their attitudes about climate change. The results were damning. More than half said “humanity was doomed”; three-quarters said the future was frightening; 55 percent said they would have less opportunities than their parents; 52 percent said family security would be threatened; and 39 percent were hesitant to have children as a result. These attitudes were consistent across countries rich and poor, big and small: from the United States and the United Kingdom to Brazil, the Philippines, India, and Nigeria.

I was quite convinced by the argument that we ought to look at the positives associated with climate change action in their own right, not only as methods of averting disaster. This is also an argument Caroline Lucas often makes, but Ritchie’s framing of the argument in terms of protecting the mental health of young people felt fresh and newly convincing to me.


This government has unleashed something far worse than “sleaze”

For Prospect, Nicholas Reed Langen has written a short but pointed article on the current Government’s attempts to avoid scrutiny.

Throughout his entire premiership, Johnson has shown contempt for anything and anyone who subjects him to independent scrutiny or who holds him to account. In anticipation of opposition from MPs, he tried to prorogue parliament in the weeks leading up to Brexit, and after the Supreme Court struck down his decision, turned his fire on the courts, trying to intimidate the judiciary into a more deferential stance—something which has arguably been achieved, given government ministers’ praise of recent decisions.

And Stuart Heritage covers the same ground in more humorous terms in Airmail (“Short of being an armorer on an Alec Baldwin set, it’s hard to see how his situation could get any worse.”)


Votes for children! Why we should lower the voting age to six

David Runciman has long been arguing for children to have the vote; this Guardian article is as good an exposition of that view as any.

There is no good reason to exclude children from the right to vote. Indeed, I believe there is a strong case for lowering the voting age to six, effectively extending the franchise to any child in full-time education. When I have made this case, as I have done in recent years in a variety of different forums, I am always struck by the reaction I get. It is incredulity. What possible reason could there be to do something so seemingly reckless and foolhardy? Most audiences recognise that our democracy is growing fractious, frustrated and frustrating. Our political divisions are wide and our institutions seem ill-equipped to handle them. But nothing surely could justify allowing children to join in. Wouldn’t it simply make everything worse?

It would not.

I always enjoy listening to Runciman make this argument. My initial reaction was one of incredulity, assuming that it was a terrible idea for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Runciman then does a good job of explaining why it feels uncomfortable, and demolishing those arguments.

The argument is an interesting thought exercise, and also a little more convincing each time I hear it.

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