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‘The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles’ by Giorgio Bassani

This 1958 Italian novel is set in Ferrara, a town in northern Italy, in the 1930s. I read the 1960 English translation by Isabel Quigly.

The novel centres on Dr Fadigati, who opens a practice in Ferrara. His surgery quickly becomes the fashionable option in town, and Fadigati is widely respected. He is noted to keep his personal life private. As the decade wears on, it gradually becomes known that he is gay, and he finds himself more and more ostracised as a result. At the same time, the Jewish narrator feels increasingly threatened by tightening racial laws.

It’s easy to see why this is an ’important’ book given the topics it covers. It does a good job of illustrating the creeping nature of intolerance, and it felt evocative of a small Italian community.

Yet, I can’t really say that I enjoyed it. It felt a little slow, despite its slim form. It also didn’t feel very reflective in tone, which I suppose must be attributable to the style of writing. I think it might also be one of those books that’s of its time: I suppose my response to a story involving a gay doctor is likely to be different to that of the average reader in 1960.

I don’t really feel motivated to go on to read any of Bassani’s other Ferrara novels, but you may feel differently if you read it.

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

Can we slow down?

In their email newsletter at the weekend, Rob and Marcus—the editors of Delayed Gratification—wrote:

It’s said that the past is a foreign country, and just ten years ago the world certainly looked rather different. Referendums on Scottish independence and Brexit were still to come, the word ‘pandemic’ sounded like something from a sci-fi novel, and the notion of a game show host – who at the time was busy spreading racist lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace – becoming president himself was absolutely preposterous.

It’s been a heck of a decade.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, .

Ironmen environment

This post was filed under: Photos.

‘The End We Start From’

I saw this film, starring Jodie Comer and Joel Fry, without knowing much about it. I essentially chose it by timeslot.

Regrettably, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The film is an allegory for new parenthood. It begins with an unnamed female character giving birth to a son, Zeb, while Britain is experiencing catastrophic flooding. Events increasingly isolate the mother and baby from friends and family members, as they are forced to battle for food and survival while the world around them falls apart. The nameless woman and her baby find refuge in various places, like state support (shelters), a new friend with a similarly aged child, and a structured commune (NCT group).

The film is based on a novel by Megan Hunter, and I can imagine the metaphor working well in a book, where we might understand more about the interior life of the central character. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it translated well to the screen—but it’s hard to imagine how it ever could.

The cinematic problem is that the allegorical events align too closely with the literal events they relate to. It’s hard to say something profound about new motherhood through metaphor when the metaphor you are using also centres on new motherhood.

For example: of course new motherhood can be a profoundly isolating experience. But when you represent that by putting a mother a child in a literally isolated position, walking through a sodden barren landscape, the mother’s reactions read very strangely, with none of the expected character development. This doesn’t work: it leaves the characters feeling remote, at a conceptual remove from the audience. Jodie Comer’s talent was wasted.

There was some spectacular cinematography in here, but also some baffling decisions: taking a speedboat through a version of central London submerged in eight feet of water was visually arresting, sat well within the metaphor (seeing the world differently) but made no sense in the context of the allegorical plot (there’s no use asking volunteers to clean up a submerged London).

Honestly, this film left me feeling bored: it was way too heavy-handed and way too preachy. On the other hand, professional critics, who—unlike me—know something about film, have generally given it positive reviews. Perhaps you shouldn’t let my criticism put you off.

This post was filed under: Film, , .

282 words

This post was filed under: Blogging, Politics, .

Calmness is key

Jonathan Moules recently wrote in the FT about the British Library’s ongoing response to a significant cyber attack. The piece focused on the role of the Chief Executive Officer, Roly Keating.

I have no inside knowledge about what happened at the British Library. It is perfectly plausible that the Library’s public face on the events might not truly reflect the experience of the staff working for the organisation. In addition, the piece is light on accountability for the (assumed) security lapses which led to the attack in the first place. Nevertheless, as a profile of a senior leader responding to an incident, a few things stood out to me.

Firstly, I admired Keating’s calmness. Moules explicitly describes him as ‘calm’ and ‘softly-spoken’, but it was Keating’s declaration that ‘I’m a believer in eight hours’ sleep’ that stood out to me.

When big things happen, it is second nature to panic and rush headlong into responding. The more one panics, the more urgent tasks appear to become. Teams must work ever-increasing hours at an ever-increasing pace until they inevitably burn out. This is a pattern I’ve seen more times in my career than I’d care to count.

The secret to things going well is for the person leading the response to remain calm. This takes considerable training and enormous effort in the moment. It usually requires disappointing people who are panicking: it might mean declining requests for hourly updates from people with every right to ask for them. It often means slowing the response down, acting on the insight that doing the right thing at a medium pace is considerably better than doing the wrong thing quickly. Most of all, it means projecting calmness and control.

Keating says, ‘This was a situation we had thought about, we had rehearsed.’

You can almost hear those words as the opening to the initial ’emergency meeting’ that Keating chaired. It’s easy to understand how they would imbue a sense of calm among those attending. It’s reassurance that, while this situation is unprecedented, it isn’t unexpected. It’s just time to follow the plan.

And that’s the second thing that stood out to me: they had a plan, and more importantly, the person leading the response knew they had a plan, had confidence in it, and followed it. This shouldn’t be surprising, yet it is frighteningly common to find people trying to lead incidents who are either unaware of the plan or disregard it.

Of course, having rehearsed the plan is a great help in enabling a sense of calm, so this is self-reinforcing. Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear of senior leaders who fail to prioritise preparation for unlikely contingencies, thereby shooting themselves in the foot.

The final thing—and it’s hard to know how much of this is down to Moules’s writing—is the clarity of thought in the response. Keating uses plain English in describing ‘an emergency meeting with library executives and the security team’, not some opaque jargon like ‘establishing an incident response cell.’ Moules talks about ‘articulating choices’, not ‘developing an options appraisal’.

It was an article that gave me a little bit of hope.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , , , .

Secondary effects can have primary importance

In my job, one of the trickiest things to consider in outbreak management is the secondary effects of any restrictions. They are often difficult to predict, let alone quantify, yet they can drastically alter the balance of risks.

Imagine, for example, a batch of ready meals which are suspected of being contaminated with a bacterial pathogen yet are destined to be heated and served to hospital patients. I think everyone’s first instinct would be to withdraw the meals to reduce the risk of giving patients food poisoning.

But this decision would not be as straightforward as it first appears. The risk of illness from the meals might well be mitigated—but not necessarily eliminated—by the need to heat them, which will usually kill the bacteria. If the patients are not to have the hot meals, then they will have to be served something else. If that ‘something else’ is, for example, pre-packed sandwiches, then the risk of illness for vulnerable patients from pathogens such as listeria, which are reasonably common in pre-packed sandwiches, might be higher than the risk associated with the hot meals.

In this scenario, the fact that patients must be fed and that there will, therefore, be a secondary effect is obvious and predictable. Sometimes, secondary effects are entirely unpredictable, and you can do no more than take an informed, professional guess. And then, crucially, keep an eye on the impact of interventions so they can be tweaked if necessary.

The same is true in clinical medicine: adding one extra tablet to a patient’s regimen might reduce their risk of developing a particular illness. But it might also increase their side effects, interact with another medication, or be the extra tablet that tips them over the edge into non-compliance with the whole regimen. Well-intentioned decisions can have unexpected secondary consequences.

Kelsey Piper of Vox gave a great example of the importance of considering secondary effects last week. She describes the fact that the US Federal Aviation Authority has done extensive research which has found that it is considerably safer for very young children to fly in their own secured seat, rather than travelling in someone’s lap. They give clear public advice on this, yet—despite all the evidence—choose not to mandate it.

Their rationale is that requiring the purchase of a seat for very young children would make flying unaffordable for many families, and a proportion of those families would choose to drive to their destination instead. Driving is considerably more dangerous than flying, to the point where the FAA calculates that for every life saved by a ‘separate seat’ mandate, sixty lives would be lost on the road.

Sometimes, we can all get drawn into looking only at our piece of any given puzzle, but it’s essential to keep a broad view: you never know when a secondary effect might undermine your action.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Health, , .

Wingfield Castle

Built in Hartlepool, the PS Wingfield Castle served as a Hull Estuary ferry from 1934 to 1974, just a few years before the Humber Bridge opened.

She was left to rot in London for a few years after that. In one of those mind-bending yet sound bits of maritime logic, concrete was poured into her bilges to prevent her from sinking due to leaks. In the early 1980s, Whitbread bought her intending to site a floating pub in Swansea, but had to abandon the idea when it became clear that she was too wide to fit through the marina’s gates.

In 1986, she returned to Hartlepool, where she has been lovingly restored, and is now exhibited at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

This post was filed under: Photos, Travel, .

100% faithful

About a year ago, I wrote about liking the first series of The Traitors: an uncontroversial opinion, if ever there was one.

In the latest edition of FT Weekend, Henry Mance rips into the series, says:

The BBC could just as well broadcast monkeys throwing darts at a board. (With budget cuts, it probably will.)

It’s a fun article which is worth reading. Unfortunately, it reveals that Mance has misunderstood the programme.

His fundamental error, from which all the rest flows, is this:

In the game, adapted from a Dutch TV show, there are 22 contestants. Three or four are “traitors”; the rest are “faithful”. The faithful ones have to identify the traitors, and vote them off one by one.

Mance is confusing the stated goal with the actual goal for players. This is like criticising The Day Today for failing to provide a comprehensive news roundup.

For most of the series, the faithful have no incentive to eliminate traitors. Traitors are allowed to replace members who are voted off, and the end-game means that it is plausible to eradicate all of the traitors in the final moments. Attempting to sway people to vote off a traitor early on is a surefire way to leave the programme, as the traitors are likely to try to convince others to banish opponents to save their own skins. The better strategy is for the faithful to eliminate their competitors, people outside their personal alliances who they suspect may eventually vote them off, regardless of their faithful or traitor status.

Mance complains that players are reduced to making banishment decisions based on feelings, with no corroborating evidence: this is true in the early game, but as we’ve discovered, this doesn’t matter. It is not true of the later game, by which point the evidence from the murders and banishments gradually stacks up.

The psychological drama in the programme comes from watching people pursue other goals under the guise of trying to ‘vote out traitors’.

Mance says:

the show is crying out for a contestant to point out the emperor’s lack of clothes: “Hey everyone, we’re no good at spotting liars. So instead of accusing each other of treachery, why don’t we stay friends and just draw lots?”

He doesn’t realise that this is a surefire way for the ‘faithful’ to lose the game… and that, perhaps, ought to have been his biggest clue that he’d misunderstood the format.

This post was filed under: TV, , , .

Tynemouth Priory and Castle

This post was filed under: Photos, .

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