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Calton Hill

Wendy and I have been to Edinburgh more times than I can remember, but until recently, we’d inexplicably never climbed Calton Hill to see the National Monument, City Observatory, Old Observatory House, et cetera.

It’s worth the short, gentle climb—especially on a sunny day.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Travel, .

I’ve seen Hew Locke: The Procession

Wendy and I went along to see this 2022 Tate Britain commission which is currently being exhibited at the Baltic. It’s an installation made up of over 100 life-size figures, each elaborately dressed, waving flags or wearing masks or carrying banners or playing the drums or riding a horse or any number of other protest- or procession-like activities.

The first impression is one of overwhelm: there is just far too much to take in, even as you wander around and between the groups of figures. The more each figure is considered, the more startling details meet the eye: a share certificate here, a colonial map there, prints of troubling artworks in between, topped with some imagery of royalty. It’s a lot.

And really, that was as far as we got with it: there were too many ideas all at once to really feel like it was saying anything in particular. The work that has gone into the piece is astounding, but we didn’t really have any profound reaction to it. We didn’t leave the exhibition with a different view on the world.

In the Baltic setting, unlike in Tate Britain, a balcony allows visitors to consider the work from above. This has the secondary effect of visitors considering the figures appearing to become part of the procession themselves, when viewed from this angle. This probably changes the work in an interesting way, but it’s hard to know for sure when this is the only setting I’ve seen it in.

The Procession remains at the Baltic until 11 June.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

More important

I’ve been to visit ‘Gathering Light’

The full title of this exhibition appears to be A British Museum Spotlight Loan: Gathering Light: a Bronze Age Golden Sun. The central object of the exhibition is a gold pendant—inexplicably displayed on a stick rather than in a hanging fashion—which dates back to the Bronze Age. It was found in Shropshire in May 2018.

I liked that the exhibition didn’t over-interpret the object. For example, there was text attempting to address why the design differs on each side of the pendant, which came to no firm conclusion.

I didn’t, however, learn much from the exhibition. There were a few local Bronze Age finds displayed alongside, but the exhibition didn’t leave me able to explain the historical importance of the main object.

I also didn’t like the degree to which the space was ‘British Museum’ branded. I’ve whinged about this before, and I should probably change the record, but when an exhibition about a Bronze Age object contains the works ‘British Museum’ more times than the words ‘Bronze Age,’ something is amiss. It feels like walking into an advert rather than an exhibition.

It was disappointing to see that the case containing the Faith and Science objects I’ve previously mentioned was covered with vinyls concealing the contents. It felt as though there was concern that they might detract from the British Museum’s special exhibition, with which they shared a space.

As you might tell, I didn’t take much away from this exhibition.

Gathering Light continues at Sunderland Art Gallery until 3 June.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been reading ‘Quit’ by Annie Duke

This 2022 popular science book by Annie Duke is focused on when we should walk away from an endeavour. Its thesis is that we tend to over-celebrate ‘grit’ as a characteristic, even where to ‘quit’ would be the most beneficial option. I picked the book up after reading about it in Trung Phan’s email newsletter, which gives a much more complete summary of the key messages.

Duke’s central argument is reasonable: I see overcommitment both in profession and in other areas of life. Within my own team, I’m the hard-wired ‘quitter’: I’m often the person challenging the team whether processes or ways of working are still serving their intended purpose, or ought to be stood down. There are few things that frustrate me as much as attending regular meetings which have outlived their purpose. Emails asking for suggestions of things to be discussed at future meetings are a pet hate of mine: the meeting should not have been arranged until it was apparent that there was something to discuss.

I found insight in Duke’s discussion of the link between identity and positions which run counter to the general consensus. I recognise this in myself.

However, as so often in popular science, I think Duke pushes her ideas too far. Duke seems to have the view that if only humans were more economically rational, their lives would be better. I profoundly disagree. I think Duke misses the point that economics is a science which tries to describe human behaviour, but which does so imperfectly, rather than a perfect science that humans fail to live up to. I think our irrationality is part of what makes us human, and is the source of a lot of beauty and joy in the world.

To give a specific example: Duke makes the argument that we should ignore sunk costs by suggesting that if we would not accept a free ticket to an event as a result of the prevailing weather conditions, then we should also not attend that event if we had pre-purchased a ticket. Duke’s argument is that the rational basis for decision-making is the expected future value, and that this does not differ between the two scenarios.

This argument fails on two fronts.

Firstly, the expected future value does vary in the two scenarios. To make only the most obvious point, if I have paid for a ticket and then decide not to go to an event, my willingness to pay for tickets in future may change because of the psychological burden of that decision. The same does not apply to an offer of a free ticket.

Secondly, the expected future value is not the only relevant consideration. The fact that we view situations with the same expected future value different is a feature of the human condition, not a bug. Our financial position might be improved by being ever-rational, but our lives would be very much poorer.

Duke also talks about ‘kill criteria,’ an idea from military and economic strategy which suggests that, when embarking on an endeavour, we ought to set criteria that would direct us to quit. This helps decision-makers to avoid over-committing to a losing position, such as continuing in a battle with too few helicopters, or continuing to invest in a business that is not growing as expected. ‘Kill criteria’ make sense in these settings.

But, Duke argues, we ought to be equally ruthlessly rational in other parts of life. She suggests that we ought to set a time limit on after which we end a relationship if marriage isn’t proposed. She recommends that we plan to quit a job if we haven’t secured an appropriate promotion within a pre-set time limit. I think this advice is appalling—it allows no room for learning and growth to change our priorities or our view of the world. The way our views change as we progress through life is one of the joys of humanity. We might hope that a new partner will alter our view of what relationships mean, or that the experience provided by a job will alter our desired career trajectory. Setting ‘kill criteria’ on things like this, and sticking to them, sounds like a bleak way to live life.

This is minimally explored in the final section of the book, but more from the point of view of diversifying your skills and assets to protect against external shocks like a company going bust, rather than from the point of view of learning and developing yourself, and growing as a person.

In the end, I felt that this book promoted an unfamiliar and possible unfamiliar goal-orientated approach to living life. I found this uncomfortable, and I am not confident that it is healthy advice.

I think it’s helpful to read books that make me a bit uncomfortable and give me new perspectives and ideas. This book made me reflect on my response to it, and I probably understand myself a little better as a result. However, ultimately, I don’t think I took much of value away from the book itself, and it isn’t one that I’d recommend to other people.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , .

I’ve seen ‘CODA’

I saw this Oscar-winning 2021 film though streaming it at home, which probably isn’t the best way to see a cinematic production. It’s a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, which I haven’t seen. I mention these facts only to illustrate that you most likely shouldn’t trust my judgement of this film.

CODA—an acronym for ‘child of deaf adults’—features a family of four, of whom only the youngest, a daughter, has hearing. She is a talented singer, and wants to pursue a career that her family struggles to understand, but is held back by her family’s reliance on her sign-language translations.

The film features a stellar cast, many of whom are deaf, including the incomparable Marlee Matlin. She plays against type as an under-confident and under-empathetic mother to the main character, played by Emilia Jones, who has a genuinely remarkable singing voice.

The problem with the film was the book, which was weak throughout. This is one of those films where the main obstacles in the protagonist’s path are overcome in a silent montage set to music in the last few minutes of the film. The actors greatly out-performed the script, with the exception perhaps of Eugenio Derbez whose character was wholly unbelievable and partly unbearable. His character was a composite of several in the French original, which might explain the unevenness in characterisation which even Derbez’s considerable talent couldn’t smooth over.

There is much to enjoy in this film—the acting and the music, in particular—but it’s not one I intend ever to re-watch.

This post was filed under: Film, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

One in two

There are two adverts I keep hearing at the moment. I think the combination of the two might be harmful to health.

The first says:

One in two people will get cancer in their lifetime.

The second says:

One in two smokers will die of a smoking-related disease.

I wouldn’t quarrel with either of those statements. However, I think hearing both might lead people to underestimate the risks associated with smoking. I think people think “cancer = death” and that “a smoking related disease = cancer”. They may therefore—completely inaccurately—conclude that smoking doesn’t change the risk of death all that much.

Of course, not all cancers are life-shortening—indeed, many don’t even warrant treatment, and many require only a one-off minor procedure.

Of course, there are many life-shortening smoking-related illnesses which aren’t cancers.

I worry, though, that people will just compare “one in two” with—well—“one in two.” That wouldn’t be helpful.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Health, Media, Post-a-day 2023.

I’ve watched ‘Apollo 11’

This 90-minute 2019 film is entirely composed of restored archival footage of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, plus a brilliant Matt Morton score. There are no talking heads and there’s no narration. The footage does it all, aided only by occasional captions (in irritatingly tiny size) and a diagrammatic representation of the mission.

It is properly breathtaking.

The opening sequence of the rocket rolling to the launch pad was, to me at least, redolent of childhood memories of Thunderbirds. The footage was so startlingly clear and bright that it is hard to believe that it’s over half a century old.

The film seemed to me to capture the daring of the mission, the tension at each crucial stage, along with a little of the humanising gallows humour. But it also showed something of the 1960s, of the societal impact of the space programme, and of the theatrics of the whole endeavour.

The film is a real triumph of curation of archive material, and a model of restraint in letter that archive speak for itself. It is well worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time.

This post was filed under: Film, Post-a-day 2023, .

I’ve been reading ‘Touching Cloth’ by Fergus Butler-Gallie

Butler-Gaille is a young Church of England priest, and this—not his first book—is a recently-published memoir of his first year following ordination. It’s rare that a book makes me actually, really, laugh out loud, but this one did that several times over. It also affirmed Butler-Gaille’s deep-seated faith, while recognising some of the frictions and absurdities of the institution of the Church of England.

I’ve often said that there is a lot of crossover between the occupations of a doctor and a priest, and this book underlined that more than ever. The parallels are manifest, from the constant requirement not to show judgement of people who have got themselves in the most peculiar pickles to the value of simply listening to someone unburden themselves, even when solutions aren’t forthcoming.

This book helped me to see the similarities in the organisational absurdities, too—just as my employer likes to talk in managerial jargon and to proceed with baffling decisions that priorities the oddest things, so the Church of England seems to act. Yet Butler-Gallie’s unwavering dedication to his faith shines through, as I hope my unwavering dedication to my patients does.

If it weren’t for my total absence of faith, I think I’d make a great priest—possibly a better priest than I am a doctor.

This short book is well worth reading. Here are some quotations I noted down from it:

Much of the time people describe medical phenomena that doctors have assured them simply are not there. Failing to find a medical solution, they come to a priest, crediting dark powers or supernatural attacks as being responsible for anything from tinnitus or corns to serious illnesses or even impending death. A willingness to listen, no matter how far-fetched the issue may seem, saying a prayer with the sufferer, allowing them to feel safe in church, is often enough to make these attacks go away. Sometimes all people want is someone to take them seriously.

Yet, as unusual as it may all seem in the twenty-first century, the Church of England still keeps, in every diocese – the chunk of the country under a particular bishop – a diocesan exorcist. These days they call them ‘diocesan deliverance ministers’, which makes them sound like the sort of person who’d leave you a ‘We’re sorry we missed you’ slip after knocking on your door with all the force of a gnat. ‘We tried to deliver your exorcism at ILLEGIBLY SCRAWLED TIME but sadly you were out. Please come to INCONVENIENT ADDRESS between HOURS YOU COULDN’T CONCEIVABLY MAKE to have your devil/demon cast out.’

In fact, they’re highly trained and experienced clergy, who either have degrees in psychiatry or act only in accordance with a psychiatrist to whom all instances of paranormal activity that seem to go beyond the explicable are referred.

Perhaps the most influential medical saint from Naples (just to keep things to a nice, broad category) isn’t Januarius but St Aspren, a Neapolitan convert from the first century whose prayers were asked for help with headaches and who, of course, was the inspiration for the brand name Aspirin.

Advent was historically a time when clergy would preach about the ‘Four Last Things’: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Unsurprisingly, the Church doesn’t bang on too much about them during Advent. Imagine the festive scene:

‘Ah, a knock at the door! I do hope it’s carol singers. “Jingle Bells” is my favourite.’

‘Hello, madam, have you heard the one about an unending lake of fire?’

That said, I think we should keep one eye on the apocalyptic at this time of the year. The temptation to be cheerful, generous and well fed for the entirety of December not only takes the shine off Christmas, which becomes one long hangover, but it’s not really possible for some people. I found that for a lot of people December really was a truly miserable time, replete with less than jovial ghosts of Christmases past. ‘Jingle Bells’ really does make some people think of torment. Lots of quiet tears are shed among the tinsel. Having a period of the year that says, as Advent is supposed to, ‘This is a bit crap, but something better is coming,’ is actually more hopeful a message for those people than unending smiling.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

Blogging about my birthday

I turn 38 today. I always find writing about the fact that it is my birthday a deeply awkward thing to do. No one ought to care, but when I’m trying to post something every day, skating past the fact of my birthday seems even weirder than an awkward post acknowledging it. So, I thought I’d have a look back at how I’ve dealt with this conundrum over the past two decades.

Last year, I just ignored it entirely and posted about unrelated stuff. I think that may be the best plan.

In 2021 and 2020, I made the same Richard Thaler inspired joke about being a ’promising thirty-something’. That still applies.

From 2015 to 2019, I didn’t mention it.

In 2014, I pictured a (not wholly appetising) birthday lunch, perhaps inspired by my 2012 photo of a cake. But I didn’t post on my birthday in 2013, and nor did I in 2011, 2010, 2009, or 2007.

In 2008, I posted about the ’stupid economy’ but didn’t mention my own birthday. In 2006, I made a pun about version 21 of ‘me’ being released, which did at least have a titter of humour to it, unlike my po-faced 2005 post, and my under-the-weather 2004 entry.

None of this is really scintillating content, is it?

Perhaps, as it will be today, birthdays are best enjoyed offline than online.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023.

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