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I’ve been reading ‘Quietly Hostile’ by Samantha Irby

In recent weeks, I’ve found it a bit difficult to concentrate when reading: there’s been a lot of other stuff going on. I felt like I needed an easy read to get back into my groove, so when I saw Backstory recommending Quietly Hostile, I thought it might fit the bill.

Prior to picking up this book, I’d never heard of Samantha Irby. It turns out that she is a well-known American comedic writer in her early 40s. She came to attention by writing a blog of humourous observations about her life, bitches gotta eat. Since then, she’s written five books, hosted a number of shows, and worked as a writer on the Sex and the City reboot. Quietly Hostile is her most recent book, consisting of a series of short humorous essays.

It was a good fit for my intention: it was easy to read, mostly trivial, and quite funny. I enjoyed reading it partly because Irby’s life as a black American female comedian is so far removed from mine, while still remaining relatable. This did mean that many of the knowing references were lost on me. I skipped the essay about Sex and the City in its entirety as I simply couldn’t follow it.

I don’t have any intention of re-reading this book, nor of seeking out Irby’s other similar titles, but this book served the purpose I asked of it. Can we ever ask more of a book than that?

A couple of quotations I enjoyed:

I like to have the news on in the background when I’m puttering around at home because I find the tone-modulated droning of newscasters oddly soothing, and my preferred way of learning what’s happening in the world is to absorb it via osmosis, never directly because that feels too stressful.

‘Quietly hostile’ is how I would describe my public personality; I am mild-mannered and super polite, but just beneath the surface of my skin, my blood is electrified and I am one inconsiderate driver away from a full Falling Down–style emotional collapse.

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

Europe is on the right track

I would have guessed that I’d visited almost all of the most populous cities in the European Union. However, on checking a list, it turns out that I’ve only been to five of the top ten, and ten of the top twenty. Somehow, I’ve never visited the EU’s biggest city: Berlin.

The news in Le Monde of the return of night trains from Paris to Berlin might just change that. The idea of hopping down from Newcastle to London on a Saturday morning, taking the Eurostar on a Saturday afternoon, wandering across Paris to connect with the Nightjet at 19.12 and waking in Berlin at 08.26 on Sunday sounds impossibly relaxing, and certainly more luxurious than a connecting flight.

My history with sleeper trains is limited. I vaguely remember taking Motorail night trains through France in my youth, with the family car on board: those services were all discontinued more than a decade ago.

I enjoyed a trip on Britain’s very own Caledonian Sleeper last year. While I’ve had no call to do so this year, I would prefer the sleeper to an evening on the East Coast Mainline and a cheap London hotel if I need to be in London early for work purposes. Showering on a moving train was a strange and memorable experience: I’m pleased to see that, like the Caledonian Sleeper, the Paris to Berlin Nightjets similarly have deluxe compartments with their own bathrooms. I’m a deluxe kind of guy: I read Midnight Trains’s weekly newsletter without fail, and look forward to the day when I’ll be able to check into their ‘luxury hotel on rails’.

While I don’t have a great deal of experience with sleeper trains, I have become increasingly fond of using trains for international travel. That’s only partly attributable to flygskam; the better part of it is that train travel feels so much more laid back and relaxing than flying. It typically takes a little longer, but that’s a virtue: it really allows time to sink into the experience of travelling and to enjoy it for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. There’s something ineffably luxurious about spending time in the act of travelling rather than rushing from place to place. I’m in the small proportion of travellers who intentionally book very long layovers on connecting flights for that exact reason: I’d rather have time to collect my thoughts and fill my stomach in an airport lounge than to be harried from gate to gate.

The European sleeper train renaissance therefore feels right up my street.

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

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

Incredible responsibility

In response to the tragic death of 27-year-old Leonard Farruku aboard the Government’s Bibby Stockholm barge, the BBC reports that:

A Home Office spokesperson said it took its responsibility for the well-being of those on board incredibly seriously.

Even before this death, I would have strongly preferred the Home Office to treat its responsibilities with credible seriousness.

To suggest, after this man’s death, that they treat the weight they give their responsibility is incredible—as in, ‘not credible: that cannot be believed; beyond belief’—strikes me as being both callous and, probably, Freudian.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023.

I’ve seen ‘Wonka’

Wonka is the much-hyped prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Timothée Chalamet. It’s a warm, Christmassy children’s musical which many professional critics have highly praised… but I, who know nothing about cinema, have some reservations.

Wonka seems to misunderstand Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and so doesn’t serve as the character origin story it purports to be. In Charlie, Willy Wonka is a Roald Dahl mix of light and dark; the character we meet in Wonka features no darkness whatsoever. This is surprising, as Chalamet is an actor who could perfectly tread that line.

Wonka reprises the song ‘Pure Imagination’ from the Gene Wilder adaptation, which underlines the degree to which the source material was misunderstood. In the Wilder film, ‘Pure Imagination’ is a welcoming song containing a warning concealed in a riddle: ‘You’ll be free / If you truly wish to be’. Wonka is not looking to treat the children but to assess their pureness of heart to select one of them to replace him. To reveal the children’s true wishes, Wonka encourages them, ‘Anything you want to, do it’—actions resulting in humiliating factory ejections for the unworthy majority. Like the character, the piece combines lightness with a slightly unhinged darkness.

In contrast, Wonka uses the same—still mildly threatening—tune, with slightly altered lyrics, to score a scene in which a child’s dream literally comes true, a scene whose intent is unbridled happiness. This is a weird choice if ever there was one.

The new music in Wonka seems to misunderstand how musicals work, which is a peculiar problem. The music in musicals benefits the production by enhancing the ability to explore complex emotions. Instead of spoken exposition or trying to communicate complicated feelings through body language, characters can describe multilayered emotions through song. But not in Wonka: they are primarily pieces that hammer home plot points. It strikes me that it must be pretty tricky to write a song about opening a shop without exploring the emotional drive to do so, which perhaps explains lines like ‘Put your hand into your pockelet / Get yourself some Wonka chocolate’.

The absence of character arcs makes this an unusual film: no one learns anything. Every character is the same at the end as at the film’s start, with only their situations changed. There is no growth, no coming-of-age: everyone is as everyone was.

Yet, despite all of the above, it wasn’t a bad film. It was pacy, fun, and unchallenging. I’d rather see Wonka again than Gran Turismo, and Wonka had a better grip on its source material than The Exorcist: Believer. It was… okay. And sometimes, okay is good enough.

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

When I peaked

I’m not even certain what a potato race involves any more.

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

Creative control

When I was about 14, I wrote some software in QBasic to support the running of the school library. Hitherto, the library catalogue and loans had been stored in a spreadsheet. I replaced it with bespoke software.

Over the next couple of years, I iteratively tweaked the software based on feedback until I finished my GCSEs and left. I think I learned more from that process than from any computing course I’ve ever taken: I also came to love Greg Perry’s book QBasic by Example, which—ironically—wasn’t to be found in the library’s collection.

In my A-level computing course, I was required to write in Visual Basic instead. I remember finding this irritating, deriving much less satisfaction from developing software using a graphical user interface rather than a blank screen with an expectant blinking cursor. It felt like a little bit of power and control had been taken away, as though the final product wasn’t completely mine in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. These days, there’s nothing I create from scratch as I did in QBasic. The closest thing is writing for this blog: it’s only here that I start with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Only here do I exercise complete control over every word and every pixel.

I’m sometimes surprised at my own tenacity in keeping this blog up for more than two decades. It’s not for anyone else’s benefit that it continues to exist. I’m sure no one else would think twice if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet, I’ve published over 760,000 words here in nearly 3,000 posts over more than twenty years. I suppose it must scratch a creative itch, even if I struggle to explain precisely where that itch is located.

Maybe I’m just a control freak at heart.

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

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

Efficient destruction

In Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman wrote:

Some things in life, like music, resist all attempts at greater efficiency. While we can produce coffee machines ever faster and more cheaply, a violinist can’t pick up the pace without spoiling the tune.

I’ve also read Rory Sutherland’s ‘doorman fallacy’, though I don’t think I’ve ever read Alchemy from which it originates:

The ‘doorman fallacy’, as I call it, is what happens when your strategy becomes synonymous with cost-saving and efficiency; first you define a hotel doorman’s role as ‘opening the door’, then you replace his role with an automatic door-opening mechanism.

The problem arises because opening the door is only the notional role of a doorman; his other, less definable sources of value lie in a multiplicity of other functions, in addition to door-opening: taxi-hailing, security, vagrant discouragement, customer recognition, as well as in signalling the status of the hotel. The doorman may actually increase what you can charge for a night’s stay in your hotel.

It strikes me that there’s sometimes a crossover between these things. Sometimes, greater efficiency isn’t possible because we’re not comprehensively understanding the task. The task of playing the violin is not merely to produce all of the right notes in the correct order, just as the task of the doorman is not simply to open the door.

Something I’ve often found myself saying in the age of Microsoft Teams is that the point of attending a meeting sometimes has nothing to do with the meeting itself. Sometimes—perhaps even often—the value is in the corridor conversations before and after the meeting, either because that’s where the real ‘intelligence’ lies or because they provide an opportunity for solid relationship building. I’m not yet aware of a good online recreation of that aspect of meetings.

And, of course, this applies in all sorts of areas of professional life. I suspect this is more true in medicine than in many other professions, though perhaps I’m biased. Often, the value of a consultation isn’t really in the problem-focused clinical interaction but in the built trust and confidence.

Sometimes, making human interactions more efficient can destroy them as effectively as speeding up the violinist can ruin a piece of music.

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

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

Flooded footpaths

At this time of year, my pedestrian route to and from work is frequently blocked by flooded footpaths. Luckily, I’m able to nip onto the grass verge and ‘borrow’ the better-drained cycle path for a bit, the only consequence being muddy shoes. Not everyone can do that.

Compared with roads and cycle paths, the lack of maintenance afforded to pedestrian facilities is attributable to weird, politically driven funding incentives. It gives the unfortunate impression that walking is less important than riding or driving.

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

Everything grows

Readwise reminded me today that Oliver Burkeman makes an insightful observation in Four Thousand Weeks:

Email is an unparalleled tool for responding rapidly to a large volume of messages – but then again, if it weren’t for email, you wouldn’t be receiving all those messages in the first place. The technologies we use to try to ‘get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.

These days, it strikes me that tools like Microsoft Teams chats have added even more to the ‘everything’. Lowering the barrier to communication isn’t always helpful.

I sometimes daydream about insisting on replying to emails by letter. This is partly to slow down exchanges which need not be at the speed of light. It also increases the barrier to communication to a height which more accurately reflects the time-cost of receiving it.

Even if just internally, corporate email systems ought to have a built-in tool to estimate the time cost of any email (i.e. reading time multiplied by the approximate salary of the recipients). There ought to be a budgetary approval process for any exceptionally high-cost emails. The same ought also to apply to Microsoft Teams messages and meetings.

The observation is hardly novel, but it strikes me that we’ve become bad at accounting for people’s time.

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

Too many domain names

In 1999, I registered the domain name simonhoward.co.uk, and I’ve owned it ever since.

There was a certain amount of foresight in that decision. I was only fourteen years old, and so I’m probably lucky that I didn’t register something wackier.

There are a lot of Simon Howards, so I’m lucky to be the one who snapped that address up early—I wasn’t early enough to get the .com, which these days hosts the website of one of many models who share my name. Thank goodness it wasn’t taken by the aristocratic child abuser who already dominates search engine results.

These days, I own 23 domain names. This is patently absurd when I only have one main website. I separate my blog (sjhoward.co.uk) from my CV (simonhoward.co.uk) from the bookshop (simonsbooks.com), which accounts for a few.

Four others are domains I registered for specific temporary projects this year, which I have no intention of renewing.

A few are handy: sjh.bz allows me a very short email address, which is occasionally handy when my main one is too long.

Others are obvious variations on my main domains to avoid confusion (sjhoward.uk and sjhoward.com).

Some are addresses I just like, though with no practical use. There’s one that would make an excellent public health company name. I recently bought simon.how because it’s the first eight letters of my name, but what will I ever do with that?

This all leads back to the same point: most people in the world have no use for a domain name, and it’s clearly ridiculous to have 23 of them, no matter how I try to justify it!

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

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

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