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31 things I learned in May 2021

1: According to a Survation poll, almost a quarter of people who vote Conservative think Boris Johnson is lying when he denies saying that he would rather “bodies pile up in their thousands” than impose a lockdown.

I really struggle with understanding the cognitive dissonance required to simultaneously believe that (a) the Prime Minister is openly lying to the public and Parliament with the support of his ministers and MPs; (b) the Prime Minister thinks that thousands of British citizens dying is the preferred one of any two options in Government; and (c) the Prime Minister and his party are the best people to lead the country.

I don’t understand politics.

2: Dominic Raab, a man who studied law at Cambridge, is on the Sunday morning shows hawking the line that “there’s no separate body or individual that has power over [the Prime Minister]. That’s why we have elections.”

He must know that this is constitutionally illiterate, yet he’s choosing to say it anyway because—presumably—he values the pursuit of power over truth.

I don’t understand politics.

3: According to Laura Kuenssberg, “Politicians, even really honest ones, regularly say things they don’t quite believe. The public knows this. We don’t expect our politicians to be angels.”

What is the point of public service if not to speak the truth and honestly strive to do what you think is right for the electorate you serve?

I don’t understand politics.

4: On 22 February, the Prime Minister told Parliament “that the contracts [for procurement of PPE] are there on the record for everybody to see.” In fact, many of the contracts had not yet been published: for example, this one wasn’t published until 8 March. It seems that rather than the Prime Minister simply correcting the record, his inability to admit straightforward errors means we now have to debate whether the original—obviously incorrect—statement was misleading.

I don’t understand politics.

5: “Used to walking and having more time to slowly take in the landscape, travelers found that the railroad bombarded such perceptual openness, producing a sort of exhaustion; in fact, an 1862 medical journal described the experience in these terms: ‘The rapidity and variety of the impressions necessarily fatigue both the eye and the brain.’”

I don’t understand politics… but that has very little to do with this.

6: A failure of diplomacy so great that it involves threats of cut electricity supplies and the deployment of Navy ships with machine guns against one of our nearest neighbours is thought to boost the electoral prospects of the political party responsible (“A cynic would be forgiven for thinking the PM won’t believe his luck that his robust response to perceived French aggression is leading the news just as Britons go the ballot box.”)

I don’t understand politics.

7: “May 7th was a bleak day for Sir Keir Starmer, who took over as Labour leader a year ago from the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn after the party’s worst election performance since 1935.The campaign was overshadowed by allegations that Mr Johnson had improperly sought donations to refurbish his flat. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, was a family doctor who has worked in clinics during the pandemic, which has hit the town hard, and witnessed the government’s early missteps in managing it. None of that mattered much.

“Voters think Mr Johnson a better candidate for prime minister than Sir Keir by 40% to 24%, according to BMG Research, a pollster. He enjoys particularly high support among Brexiteers and those with fewer qualifications. His faltering response to the pandemic, and an often-chaotic turnover of personnel in Downing Street, left Tory MPs in despair, but he will survive in office for as long as they believe he is their best chance at re-election.”

A party in power for 11 years, a Government mired in scandal, and a set of leaders who have gifted us one of the world’s highest covid-19 death rate, result in a record by-election swing in a constituency which has never previously supported the governing party. It’s an unbelievable achievement for the Conservative party, a miserable failure for the opposition, and further proof (as if any were required) that…

I don’t understand politics.

8: “Think about that common, and distinctly modern, Shakespearean truism also found in children’s stories, self-help books, and everyday advice: “To thine own self be true.” We are urged not only to discover that real, authentic version of who we are, but to remain faithful to it at all costs. It leaves little room for having more than one self, despite the many contexts we find ourselves in that draw on our different sides and different strengths. Advice to be true to some essentialized version of your self runs the risk of discouraging change and flexibility.”

9: “Medicine has the authority to label one man’s complaint a legitimate illness, to declare a second man sick though he himself does not complain, and to refuse a third social recognition of his pain, his disability, and even his death. It is medicine which stamps some pain as ‘merely subjective,’ some impairment as malingering, and some deaths—though not others—as suicide. The judge determines what is legal and who is guilty. The priest declares what is holy and who has broken a taboo. The physician decides what is a symptom and who is sick.”

10: In the editor’s letter in the latest Wired, Greg Williams talks about how Apple’s “business model happens to coincide with both governmental and consumer appetites for increased privacy.”

I think he’s wrong: in the UK context, it doesn’t feel to me like there is much governmental appetite for increased privacy. From voter identification, to sharing location history in the covid-19 app, to backdoors in encryption technologies, to calls to prevent anonymous publishing on social media, it feels as though the government is suspicious of the motivations of those who value privacy.

11: I’m on a bit of a Kishi Bashi phase at the moment.

12: “The Queen was leaning over a man injured by an IRA bomb, asking him how much sight he retained. ‘Not a lot’, said the Duke, ‘judging by that tie.’”

13: I learned how Pete Adlington designed the cover for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and The Sun.

14: “It is impossible to read these pages without bemoaning that, in the nation’s worst crisis since 1945, Britons are governed by someone so obviously unsuited to the job. Over the past year, the man who urged the nation to ‘take back control’ refused to take decisions and sought to displace responsibility wherever possible (‘we are following the science’). In his masterly recent portrait of Johnson in the Guardian, Edward Docx describes the prime minister as a clown whose rise to power was built on persuading the audience to collude in the secret that all human endeavour is no more than a complicated joke. Johnson, on receiving bad news in his daily meetings, tends to keep his head bowed. He then looks up quickly, his eyes darting around the room, to find someone to join him in a rueful smirk. The NHS needs more ventilators? Let’s call it ‘Operation Last Gasp’. The temperament behind that humour guided the country on its bleakly circular trajectory.”

15: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.”

16: Motherland is one of those comedies which divides Wendy and me: I think it’s brilliant, while Wendy is less keen.

17: Almost third of people in Newcastle have worked from home. I’m surprised it’s that high, even considering the pandemic.

18: “The education secretary Gavin Williamson just said: ‘The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.’

“He’s genuinely gleeful about people not studying art. That’s what it means to the people in power, and that heinous attitude trickles down through every facet of society.

“We are now decades after the YBAs, half a century after Jackson Pollock and a hundred years after Duchamp’s urinal, and public perception of art still hasn’t moved on. People still look at a drip painting or a Rothko and think ‘I could do that’. Art is frozen in the past, in a world where the more a painting looks like a photo the better it is, and that’s been done on purpose.”

19: FiP played The Tibbs’s cover of Santa Baby this morning. I like my music eclectic, but Christmas tunes with breakfast in May is pushing it.

20: I learned about jury nullification, and the principle that “jurors should aim to strike a balance between following their own sense of justice and respecting the accumulated cultural knowledge represented by the law.”

21: I read a bit about how to approach pronouns in the workplace, but it didn’t help me understand the person whose email signature has “she/them” listed in place of the more usual “he/him”, “she/her” or “they/them” combinations.

22: “The [Chernobyl] disaster is both history and myth: it has been exhaustively investigated, yet the basic facts have still not been established. The death toll, for example, has been fixed at just two from the explosions themselves and a further 29 from radiation sickness during the three months afterwards: close to Soviet reports at the time, and far short of the thousands claimed by Western media and intelligence sources. But the long-term figure can only be guessed at. The United Nations’ estimate in 2005 of four thousand deaths is at the low end of a spectrum which extends, in Greenpeace International’s estimate, to ninety thousand. Assessments of the present and future risk continue to diverge. According to Igor Gramotkyn, the current director of the Chernobyl power plant, the site will be a no-go area for at least 20,000 years; other sources think it may be habitable in three centuries, and observe that populations of wolves, bears, beavers and otters are already thriving. By 2000 3.5 million Ukrainians were claiming state benefits as radiation sufferers; yet dozens of elderly former residents have returned to live (and die) in the exclusion zone, and the World Health Organisation has determined that radioactivity-related mutations and birth defects are statistically insignificant.”

23: “Green Man Authority” is a thing.

24: It’s been an exceptionally wet May… so far. It’s sunny today, though.

25: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones.”

While the span of a lifetime makes this true in a longitudinal sense, I’m not sure I wholly agree with this as a philosophy: in books, as in life, I think a varied diet is important. Junk food is fine sometimes, and bad books can be fun.

26: Gordon Brown’s government is the only one in British history not to have included anyone who went to Eton.

27: It’s easy to forget, but important to remember, the net positive impact of the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

28: Preparing for an appraisal after the most challenging year of my career to date has proven to be a surprisingly emotional process.

At a time when I’m frankly exhausted, it’s making me sit alone in a room while I drag up raw memories of unacceptable interpersonal behaviour, frustration with being left repeatedly in invidious positions, working under enormous pressure to unrealistic expectations, the realisation that I’ve had fewer sets of consecutive weekends off in the last year than I have fingers on one hand, the weird psychological instability caused by people insisting that fiction is fact, and much more unpleasantness besides.

In recent years, I’ve grown to be a bit of a secret fan of appraisals, supporting (as they do) reflection on practice and future plans. But this year, I’ve found the process of preparing for the meeting really quite traumatic. Rather than helping me reflect and learn and spot connections, it’s made me brood and relive events that I could not control and that were bad enough to live through just once, thanks.

For some, this must be the experience every year. And, for all the benefit it brings, I don’t think that’s worth it.

I think we need to do medical appraisals better, in a way that is perhaps more like counselling, and doesn’t involve sitting alone revisiting traumas in an unsupported way.

29: It’s depressing to see how widely this completely fictional April Fool’s interview with Eric Carle in The Paris Review came to be reported as fact in so many of his obituaries: “My publisher and I fought bitterly over the stomachache scene in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The caterpillar, you’ll recall, feasts on cake, ice cream, salami, pie, cheese, sausage, and so on. After this banquet I intended for him to proceed immediately to his metamorphosis, but my publisher insisted that he suffer an episode of nausea first—that some punishment follow his supposed overeating. This disgusted me. It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are. He has recognized an immense appetite within him and has indulged it, and the experience transforms him, betters him. Including the punitive stomachache ruined the effect … I don’t recognize childhood obesity. No one should. I see children doing what they like, which is eating, and doing it without the shame or remorse later drilled into them by Judeo-Christian ethics.”

30: Duncan Stephen has written a great blog post about why content is more important than technology, and I’m simultaneously delighted by his clear explanation and depressed that it is necessary. I’m fed up of having arguments in the public health world where people excitedly say that they give people information X through medium Y, but want to spend more time tinkering with Y than actually making X both technically accurate and practically useful. And that’s before we even get to the question of whether Y is better than long-standing medium Z from the point of view of the end user, even if Y is more cost-efficient (and whizzy) than Z.

31: Eighteen months of daily lessons is enough… for now.

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

Weeknotes 2022.21

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twenty-first post of a series.

I’m still of the opinion that Twitter is on the wane in terms of its cultural influence, even if not in terms of other measures. I wondered a few weeks ago “whether by this time next year we’ll still see the same constant exhortations by television and radio programmes to follow their people on Twitter.”

The Political Editor of the BBC said this week, “my focus is on television, radio & the BBC News website and app. I’m less fussed about Twitter, to be honest.”

Confirmation bias is a cruel trickster, but it really does look like this fits into the trend that I think I’m seeing.

The man is obviously unfit to lead. His ability to cling onto office after so many resignation-requiring failures is something quite atrocious. But no-one besides him thinks he can win another election, which seems to me to make a “bet the house” early surprise poll a better prospect than being binned by his own side for an electable alternative.

Monkeypox, monkeypox monkeypox monkeypox, monkeypox monkeypox. Monkeypox.

Clowns do not develop. Purposelessness pervades. The emphasis is on anti-meaning. There is a deliberate fracturing of cause and effect.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

What I’ve been reading this month

Just three to mention this month.

New Dark Age by James Bridle

This is a well-researched reflection on the relationship between humans and computers, published in 2018. Bridle’s central point, I think, is that we often don’t have a great understanding of how technology we rely upon undertakes its work, and the development of new technologies like artificial intelligence clouds this further. In turn, this reflects back on us, clouding our own understanding of the world around us.

There were two specific points in this book which challenged some pre-existing conceptions I had held.

The chapter on YouTube transformed my understanding of the site. I had no idea that, for example, violent parodies of Peppa Pig are on there, and can be served to children by YouTube’s algorithm (which continually plays back to back videos if left—I hadn’t even clocked that!) I also hadn’t realised how much bizarre autogenerated content existed on the platform. I had thought that there was some reasonable content moderation, possibly because I hadn’t understood the true quantity of uploaded material.

I also had no idea that the NSA had cracked some prime number factors commonly used in encryption, nor that mathematical developments like this are routinely kept out of scientific journals—harming the development of the science—effectively as a cyber warfare strategy. I was a bit bowled over by that revelation, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been so naive.

Throughout, Bridle writes with real perception and clarity. This book has changed and better informed my view of technology as an adjunct to human thought. There was a lot to ponder in here.

House Arrest by Alan Bennett

This is a slim selection of diary entries from March 2020 to March 2021, capturing Bennett’s experience of lockdown and the pandemic, including the re-making of his Talking Heads TV series. As always, Bennett also shares gossipy anecdotes from earlier in life and reflects with horror on the state of modern politics.

This is a very short book, but brought half an hour or so of the unique joyful warmth that always runs through Bennett’s diaries.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I picked this up after seeing it featured in a New York Times piece which called it “a turning point for the genre” which had sold more than 1.3 million print copies. It’s also won numerous awards. I was disappointed.

The plot concerns a romance between the twenty-something son of a female President of the United States and a similarly aged Prince of the United Kingdom, younger brother of the third in line to the throne. There are many interesting questions to dissect in this scenario, but none of them are addressed in this frothy romance.

I found this superficial and poorly researched: there was a section where I struggled to follow the geography until I realised that the author thought that Buckingham Palace was in Buckingham, which was a part of London. Somehow, there is a lot of discussion of the political impact of religious objections to the relationship in the States, but no mention of the monarch’s role as Head of the Church of England. The writing is also unforgivably clunky in parts.

I think, at heart, this just wasn’t the book I expected it to be. From a “turning point for the genre” I think I expected something more considered, grounded in reality and exploratory, but instead this just seemed like a ten-a-penny by-numbers romance.

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

Weeknotes 2022.20

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twentieth post of a series.

I’ve been reading Simon Kuper’s Chums this week. He writes, “Britain does have world-class scientists, engineers and quants, but they are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.”

That feels familiar.

There is a remarkable, powerful article in the latest Prospect (originally published in Die Zeit) bringing together a victim of torture at Guantánamo Bay and his torturer. There are so many layers to it that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.

I mentioned in February that I had a preference for paper notebooks as I’d found nothing quite as “glanceable.” One suggestion in response was to try OneNote with a window either docked or “pinned” on top of all other windows, and actually that seems to work pretty well. I haven’t used my paper notebook for a month or so.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.19

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The nineteenth post of a series.

I’ve been irritated over the past couple of years by the emergence of the phrase “at pace” to mean “quickly” (e.g. “we are working at pace”). It’s clearly nonsensical as the pace isn’t specified. I was irritated afresh this week by seeing it appear in a reputable newspaper for the first time.

It’s clearly a new coinage, having not yet been picked up by any of the major dictionaries. I’ve convinced myself that it must be a mishearing of the word “apace” which is a perfectly fine synonym for “quickly”. I’m making it my mission to use “apace” in documents more often, before it’s outpaced by “at pace”.

If I’d been doing weeknotes a few years ago, you’d have been subject to a similar rant about the different between “auspices” and “aegis”, but I’ll spare you. Just know that if you write “under the auspices of…” then you almost always mean “under the aegis of…”. Or, even better, reword whatever you’re trying to say with altogether less ridiculous phrasing.

And don’t get me started on “while” versus “whilst”. My strong preference is to only ever use the latter if you also plan to use “whence” in whatever you’re writing.

I’ve been reading James Bridle’s excellent New Dark Age this week. Chapter nine, which is about YouTube, opened my eyes. I’m also listening to the New York Times podcast Rabbit Hole at the moment, which is mostly about YouTube, and the two make a startling combination.

I’m not a particularly regular user of YouTube, but thought I had a reasonable idea of what it was all about. It turns out, I didn’t have a clue. It’s deeper, darker and altogether less savoury that I ever imagined.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.18

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The eighteenth post of a series.

Wendy and I had a fantastic meal at Newcastle favourite 21 this week. We were trying to work out how long it had been since we’d last eaten there: we quickly realised it was before the 2015 name change, and eventually worked out that it must have been 2013. Hopefully, we’ll be back sooner!

I’m probably the last to say it, but Charlotte Ivers’s column in The Sunday Times last week gives a brilliantly clear account of the constant background nature of culture of Westminster sexual harassment. By-the-by, Charlotte also writes a Substack I really enjoy, in which she gives podcast recommendations.

According to this website, this bank opened in 1894 as part of the North East Banking Company and became part of the Bank of Liverpool twenty years later. In 1918, it first became part of Martins Bank, and this ghost sign was covered by that of Barclays in 1969. The branch closed a couple of months ago, just shy of its 128th birthday.

The branches of Santander, NatWest and Nationwide on the same stretch of road are also post-pandemic victims of branch closures, though Lloyds, HSBC, Halifax, Virgin Money and the Newcastle Building Society remain.

I’ve been racking my brain to recall when I last ventured into a bank. I withdrew £20 of pound coins for parking meters in rural areas about a year ago, but I did that at the Post Office and I think it may have been the last time I used either cash or a physical bank card, let alone a branch.

I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the general issues affecting online news and digital advertising, but Donald MacKenzie’s article in The LRB made me realise the superficiality of my understanding. I had no idea, for example, that “a plausible rough estimate is that UK news publishers lost £50 million in the early months of the pandemic because of ad-blocking of their stories about it.”

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.17

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The seventeenth post of a series.

My second round of COVID has kept me quieter than usual this week. Wendy has suffered too this time round, which has led to me moving out of our study temporarily so that we didn’t have to spend the week in the same room on competing calls. I have therefore spent much of the week in what I refer to as our ‘reading room’, and what Wendy calls ‘the man cave’.

We’ve both been enjoying Ted Lasso this week, even if we are quite late to the party. It’s a bit silly and sentimental, and therefore perfect right now. I would never have imagined I’d enjoy a programme which is (sort of nominally) based around football.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

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