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31 things I learned in January 2021

1: The chai tea latte from Starbucks isn’t too bad.


2: I’ve found a new affection for Instagram: I left last year, but have drifted back over the Christmas period.


3: People used to wonder where birds went in winter.


4: It is, in fact, possible for the Government to announce a lockdown and publish the associated guidance simultaneously. Small successes are worth celebrating, especially 42 weeks after the Prime Minister said his Government would turn the tide on covid in 12 weeks and “send coronavirus packing”.


5: “I’m completely fed up. He just can’t lead and this can’t go on.”


6: I learned about the Dogger Bank wind farm.


7: I’ve never really thought about the ethics of architecture before, but there are some interesting and current questions in the field. Is it okay to design spaces for prolonged solitary confinement? Is it okay to design airports in the age of climate change? Is it okay to design waiting rooms when more humane technological solutions exist?


8: It’s instructive to look at how Tony Blair, who now pops up from time to time to offer the Government advice on pandemic management, reflected on his own management of a potential pandemic in his ‘risible’ autobiography:

During the run up to the election, we nearly had a vast panic over the approaching ‘flu pandemic’. There is a whole PhD thesis to be written about the ‘pandemics’ which never arise. In this case, the WHO had issued a report claiming there would be 500,000-700,000 deaths across the world. The old First World War flu statistics were rolled out, everyone went into general panic and any particular cases drew astonishing headlines of impending doom. Anyone who caught a cold thought they were part of a worldwide disaster.

I’m afraid I tried to do the minimum we could we the minimum expenditure. I understood the risk, but it just didn’t seem to me that the ‘pan-panic’ was quite justified. And in those situations, everyone is so risk-averse that, unless you take care, you end up spending a fortune to thwart a crisis that never actually materialises.

However, the reaction of the system is perfectly understandable. The first time you don’t bother is the time when the wolf is actually in the village, so you have to steer a path, taking precautions and be ready to ramp it up if it looks like this time it’s really happening. But oh, the endless meetings and hype of it all!

Is doing the bare minimum really that different to the current Government’s initial approach? Isn’t the lesson of history that we should hit potential pandemics hard and early? Or, has been quipped, is the real lesson from history that we never learn from history?


9: Publishers often tell readers that ebooks are the future; but when they want they books reviewed in the hallowed pages of The TLS, they still send hardbacks.


10: More than a month on, I’ve still not seen a better briefing on covid vaccines than Rupert Beale’s.


11: “Act like you’ve got covid” means “cycle seven miles from home”. That’s a round of charades I’m not winning.


12: “Everything will be confiscated—welcome to the Brexit, sir. I’m sorry.” Truckers’ butties have become headline news.


13: 2021 is a census year: with most students working online, it strikes me that University towns might be about to discover that they have smaller than expected official populations, which could cause trouble for the next decade.


14: In professional work, I’m a stickler for keeping writing concise. Only yesterday, I moaned to colleagues that a draft internal guideline had more than doubled in length with very little additional useful content, but a whole lot more waffle. We all know the Mark Twain quip that “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”, but it wasn’t until I read this article by former Court of Appeal judge Robin Jacob that I considered that work pressures might result in baggier writing. I’m sure this is true for my own work too; I’d just never connected the two before.


15: One of the challenges with trying to use the law to control an outbreak is that the law often comes to define the limits of the response. For example, laws requiring self-isolation will necessarily tightly define those who are required to self-isolate (say, people with known identified contact with an infectious person). However, there may be very good reasons for asking people outside of that group to self-isolate (say, people likely to have had contact with an infectious person, but without certainty). If systems are then built solely around requiring isolation, with the necessary barriers around it to prevent those who should not be required to isolate from being contacted, then it can become very practically difficult to ask people to isolate, even though this may be a key control measure in a given outbreak.

For example, if an app were to be built to allow people to ‘check in’ to venues, it would be difficult to conclusively prove that any two people in that venue had been in close contact, and it may therefore be legally challenging to require them to self-isolate. However, if ten people have been in the same venue at the same time and nine of them were infectious, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask the tenth to self-isolate on the basis that they may well be at high risk of contracting the disease.

If the app is built only to meet the needs only of the legislation and not of broader public health management of complex situations, it may turn out to be considerably less good than just keeping a written log of customer details to which judgement can be applied.


16: “St Uncumber: A medieval saint to whom people, especially women, used to pray to relieve them of their spouses. She was a Portuguese princess who didn’t want to get married. Her father found her a husband. She prayed to become unattractive and her prayer was answered. She grew a beard, which naturally put off the suitor. Her father had her crucified as a result. She’s depicted in King Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, with long hair and a full beard.”


17: The Aston Villa football team is based in Aaron, near Birmingham. I have spent the last 35 years thinking it was a London-based team. My knowledge of football (and English geography) really is woeful.


18: “The only ‘world-beating’ element in our lives is the virus, and we’d benefit from a discourse that came clean about it.”


19: Matt Hancock, proponent of the Government’s “act like you’ve got covid” guidance—an act which includes playing rugby in a park—is self-isolating now that he’s a contact of someone who had covid. It’s an odd state of affairs when “acting like you’ve got covid” includes being out in public and in close contact with others, while acting like you are a contact of a covid case means self-isolating.


20: J R Pole once said that every president makes his predecessor look good. Today, we hope that’s not true.


21: “Works of art were until the early twentieth century typically displayed in ‘period rooms’ furnished to match the era of their creation.”


22: More than I ever wanted to know about those little built-in battery testers that always used to appear on AAs, but seem to have disappeared.


23: “One morning in 2002, while walking his daughter to school, forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard Taylor ran into an ex-patient, who waved to him cheerily. Years earlier, the man, a talented musician, had beaten his father to death during a psychotic episode, then set fire to his body before sticking a meat thermometer into his stomach (‘To see if he was done’). Taylor had assessed him in custody. He was ‘incredibly disturbed and violent’, he says. But having undergone years of treatment, the man had been freed under close supervision. ‘Who was that, Daddy?’ asked Taylor’s five-year-old daughter, as they walked on. ‘Oh, just someone I used to work with,’ he told her.” (from The Week magazine)


24: The commonest cause of fire in UK hospitals is arson, at least according to the fire safety mandatory training which has been frustrating Wendy this afternoon.


25: Marie Curie, the only scientist ever to have won Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, “was married in a civil ceremony wearing a dark blue outfit that she subsequently adapted and wore for years as a lab coat.”


26: 315 days after we were told that keeping the number of covid deaths “below 20,000” would be “a good outcome”, the number of deaths has passed 100,000: almost a third more than the number of British civilians who died in the First and Second World Wars combined. The UK now has a higher coronavirus death rate per million people than any other country.


27: Sometimes, something I read makes me feel regretful through association with and on behalf of medical colleagues who I’ve never met. It’s a strange feeling. This is one of those times:

Every medical staff member we met along the way has asked my wife how she’s doing, not just once but on every occasion they’ve crossed paths with her. She’s spent a lot of time telling them she’s fine. None of them ever did get around to asking me the same question.

I am being OK; I want to make that clear. I think that, by now, I’m getting it down pat. But am I OK?

Not yet.


28: “We have throughout followed scientific advice and done everything we can to minimise disease and suffering throughout the country.” Of course “we” did.


29: It’s a year since we set up our Incident Co-ordination Centre for ‘Wuhan novel coronavirus’ response at work, and I’ve learned that—as in life—some years in health protection can be substantially more challenging than others.


30: “Despite his own serious brush with the virus, Boris Johnson never approached it with the appropriate humility. He never mustered that consistency of purpose that was, among other things, a precondition for clear public messaging. He never sought to bring in from the cold rivals, such as former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who publicly engaged with the detailed dilemmas in a way he did not. Nor did he fully transcend his instinctive individualism, and summon a spirit of truly shared endeavour in the face of a shared threat. He continued to take a truculent stance to the likes of the teaching unions, who governments find difficult in ordinary times, but whom a creative leader could have turned into partners in this rare moment of national crisis. The requisite command and resolve was not there—and Britain is counting the cost in lives.”


31: Many of the organisations involved in the covid response are corporate members of the Plain English Campaign. Avoiding jargon is a key part of good communication in incident response. Yet my inbox is now full of emails talking about “two-week sprints”, “playbooks”, “taskforces”, “canvases” and more besides. Management-speak seems to have taken over to an alarming extent. I despair.

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

Weeknotes 2022.04

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The fourth post of a series, which is looking increasingly like a regular thing, inspired by Jonathan Rothwell.


Mention of the phrase “fat head” in AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird made me miss my grandma, who died last month, and whose rare use of that insult was the stuff of family legend.


The cheapest standard single adult fare on Metro, paid by a contactless debit card, rises to £2.30 from 1 April, compared with £1.70 on the London Underground. But the Metro doesn’t offer a contactless discount, whereas there is a discount for paying with the Oyster-ish Pop card, which reduces the fare to £1.65.

Median weekly earnings in London are £736 compared to £533 in the North East, which might suggest that fares here should be cheaper, but Tyne and Wear isn’t the whole North East, and it’s not necessarily fair to assume that the ridership of the Metro and the London Underground are similar segments of the population.

Parking in free in many Newcastle car parks after 5pm, while there’s no Metro discount in the evenings, which doesn’t reflect the environmental impact of these forms of transport. But not all Metro journeys are destined for Newcastle City Centre, the Metro has higher marginal costs to run in the evening versus opening a car park for a bit longer, and active transport is effectively free.

It’s really hard to define what “right” means in terms of transport policy, let alone to achieve it, and I’m glad I’m not in charge.


The second series of Diane Morgan’s Mandy on BBC iPlayer was just as fun as the first.


I don’t listen to BBC Radio 3, but somehow stumbled across and enjoyedPiano Flow this week, which introduced me to Tokio Myers.

On a web search, I found out that Myers won Britain’s Got Talent in 2017. I don’t regularly watch that programme, but would have confidently said that I was ‘generally aware’ of it, unavoidable as it is. And yet: I had no idea that a pianist had ever won.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve five books to tell you about this month: one didn’t make it into the photo above, as it was already back at the library!


12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson

This recently published non-fiction book looks at the future of humanity’s relationship with computers generally and artificial intelligence specifically. Winterson draws lessons from the past, in particular from the industrial revolution, and sketches out how our future might look.

I learned a lot from this book and found Winterson’s absorbing. Her arguments about how the future might look are compelling. As with any great writing, Winterson brushes by fascinating tangential ideas which cause a lot of thought and reflection. Two of these ideas stood out for me in particular.

The first was Winterson’s discussion of effective immortality, or the idea that we could upload our consciousness to a device and continue to think forever. The thought horrifies me: the idea of living forever, of going on and on and on without any sense of progress or completion, totally repulses me. I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this until I read this book. And Winterson gently challenges that response, pointing out that it is essentially selfish, denying humanity the benefit of infinite life experience (and perhaps wisdom). A lot to chew on and unpack there!

The second was Winterson’s impassioned plea for science to involve writers. Precision, and perhaps even beauty, is essential in scientific communication, and is a dying art. This chimes with my own ideas about the field of medicine, where clinical guidelines are increasingly poorly and imprecisely expressed, often leading to competing interpretations. This ought to be a key lesson of the pandemic, but I strongly suspect it won’t be learned.

(An aside: I was once involved in writing some national guidance, and suggested a simplified reworking of over-complex advice. Others on the committee felt like it read too much like common sense. I asked what was wrong with guidelines that reiterate common sense if that’s what the evidence supported. I was told quite plainly by the Chair that “common sense” wasn’t the sort of thing this particular national body produced; which raised far more questions than it answered, at least in my mind.)

Additionally, publications in the medical literature are ever-more narrowly targeted as sub-sub-specialities talk to themselves in their own coded language. This has, perhaps, been more broadly recognised, but the response is typically an inelegant press release for public consumption, rather than much-improved writing in the first place.

I think you can probably tell that I thought this book was brilliant, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.


Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This 1977 semi-autobiographical novel is chock-full of dark humour. In the post-war period, a teenage girl is sent to convalesce after an illness with her great-grandmother, who she barely knows. Great Granny Webster turns out to be an ice-cold matriarch, seemingly to the point of caricature, at least when seen from the teenager’s viewpoint.

Yet, as the novella progresses, it becomes clear that the titular character is just one among many remarkable and off-beat women in the family, and we begin to understand a little of their background. It may be a “youngest child” thing to find this reminiscent of family conversations about unknown and unplaceable distant relatives—but that’s how it felt to me.

I found this funny, macabre, and strangely moving—it feels like there is a lot in its 108 pages.


Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway

I used to avidly read Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times column, and even listened to the podcast version after that launched. When she announced in 2016 that she was leaving to become a secondary school teacher, I was surprised and intrigued.

Re-educated is a recently published memoir of this period of Kellaway’s life, in which she also left her husband, moved into an architecturally notable house, and stopped dyeing her hair. As with Kellaway’s columns, she injects wry humour throughout, while also writing with emotion and honesty.

I enjoyed this, but it’s a little difficult to disaggregate my feelings about this book from the fact that I already liked Kellaway and her writing.


When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

Winner of an English PEN Award, and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, I read the 2020 translation by Adrian Nathan West of this book—novel?—by the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut.

The book consists of five stories about major scientific discoveries and the many unexpected negative consequences that flowed from them. The first of the five stories is almost entirely factual, and the amount of fiction in each account gradually increases. It is a book about the boundaries of science and thought, and the personal and worldly consequences of pushing them.

People much better-read and more intelligent than I have found much to love about this book. I found its premise intriguing, but the book itself really quite dull. It had some nice imagery, including a great passage about the life cycle of citrus trees (which I don’t know whether was fact or fiction), but I found much of the prose really quite wooden. I was also surprised by how much the integration of fact and fiction annoyed me: I wanted to know which bits were true, and found this a bit of a barrier to immersion in the story.

I think this is perhaps a book that would reward close study far more than my disappointing casual reading of it.


Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

This is a novel which was published in 2018. I picked it up after reading some press coverage of the release of the sequel: it was explained that Pearce had been inspired to write the novel after gaining insight into the lives of women who lived through the Second World War through her study of women’s magazines of the period.

The protagonist, Emmy Lake, is an aspiring journalist in her early 20s who gets a job typing the ‘agony aunt’ page of such a magazine. Unfortunately, she’s also intensely irritating, though the author seems to see her as sympathetic. Interfering, overbearing and terribly earnest, Emmy is a character I simply couldn’t warm to, which rather spoiled the book.

The writing style also grated, with Unnecessary Capitalisation of Random Words, and a frightfully annoying use of adverbs that came to feel like a parody of BBC radio announcements of the period.

The plot was astonishingly predictable and most of the characters barely have two-dimensions, let alone three.

This was just not up my street.

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




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