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30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”


2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.


3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.


4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.


5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.


6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.


7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.


8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:


9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.


10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.


11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”


12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.


13: What’s the difference between music and language?


14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”


15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.


16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.


17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.


18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”


19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.


20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.


21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”


22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.


23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.


24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?


25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.


26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”


27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.


28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.


29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.


30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

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Becoming antisocial

Over the course of the last six months or so, I’ve gradually drifted away from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the last few weeks, I’ve deleted my accounts. This feels oddly transgressive, and friends who noticed have responded with mild alarm and a single universal question: ‘Why?’

There is no straightforward answer: it’s a complex web of emotional, social and rational reasons rather than a logically constructed ‘position’. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to scribble down some thoughts on the topic.

I joined Facebook in (I think) 2005. I was a student at the time and so able to join as soon as Facebook ‘launched’ at my university. It connected me with my friends and solved a genuine problem of how best to share things like photos from events.

A year later, Facebook opened to anyone with an email address, and schoolfriends and relatives quickly found their way onto my ‘friends’ list. I appreciated this passive approach to gaining insight into the lives of others, and I felt a genuine connection with people I hadn’t seen for years.

I was also a relatively early-adopter of Twitter, signing up in around 2007. I used the service for a variety of purposes over the years, including ‘micro-blogging’ – posting standalone tweets which I also cross-posted to this very website. Over the years, I built up a collection of interesting people who I ‘followed’, and enjoyed debating and sparring with them.

I also started to use Twitter for work purposes, promoting events I’d been involved in, tweeting about conferences I was attending, and that sort of thing. The service became something of a professional networking platform for me.

I was not an early adopter of Instagram. I don’t think I ever worked out how to get the most out of that service: I ‘followed’ people I knew in real life, and enjoyed seeing their photos. I also followed a few accounts which posted beautiful travel photos because they made me dream of summer holidays.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that Instagram wasn’t for me. I’d been posting for a year or so when I gradually drifted away from the service, and eventually stopped opening the app. There was no conscious decision behind that behaviour.

Reflecting on it, my Instagram feed seemed to me to have a single emotional note: joy. There’s a Glenn Slater lyric about ‘forcing you to feel more joy than you can bear,’ and that’s what Instagram did for me. It’s wearing to browse a world where everyone presents as constantly delighted.

I don’t want to live in a world of constant ecstasy; perhaps I’m a grumpy git, but I need a bit of shade to better appreciate the light. And I suppose the same is true of my social media feeds.

The advertising on Instagram also served to undermine the emotion in a perverse way. Artfully taken pictures of crappy products undermine the sentimentality and emotional pull of the service. Putting a beautiful picture of a terrible product alongside a beautiful picture of a magnificent vista undermines the latter. And Instagram ‘influencers’ trying to shill crap always left a nasty taste.

At heart, the service just didn’t make me feel happy anymore, and I drifted away. I didn’t delete my account, but I did eventually delete the app.

It was Brexit that pushed me off Twitter.

Twitter has always had the capacity to facilitate unproductive tribal debate. The format is part of the reason: it isn’t possible to develop a sensible argument in 140 (or even 280) characters. Debates rage about individual word choices while wider context is missed.

The Twitter community also has an inflated sense of its own representativeness and importance. People think their Twitter bubble reflects the ‘general view’ of the world and become enraged and upset when reality conflicts with that perception. Conspiracy theories abound, the ‘mainstream media’ gets pilloried for reflecting mainstream opinion rather than that of the ‘twitterati’, and the whole community frequently becomes angry.

Anger drove me away from Twitter: not the anger of others, but my own anger. I’d habitually open my Twitter feed on my phone from time to time and noted that it always made me feel angry. I could be annoyed at a story of injustice that would otherwise have passed me by; frusrtated by someone’s absurd perversion of a news article or viewpoint; or angry at myself for hypocritically thinking less of someone for ranting on Twitter.

Once, I habitually opened the Twitter app while strolling along the promenade in Nice on a beautifully sunny day. There was a lot in my feed about Brexit, including some ‘real life’ friends espousing extreme positions and abusing politicians. The angry mob raised my dander, and I fired off a tweet about this being the first and only time I’d ever get to wander around this beautiful city as an EU citizen.

As I walked on, I reflected: I’d felt relaxed before I opened Twitter; now I was mildly stressed. I’d posted what amounted to a pointless rant, and just contributed to the collected unhealthy rage. I opened Twitter again, deleted the tweet and deleted the app.

It was covid that drove me off Facebook.

My feed became clogged with covid posts, many of them factually wrong, many angry and many seemingly calculated to generate fear. I felt that the time had come for a break from Facebook, and I deleted the app, intending for this to be temporary.

I had temporarily stopped looking at Facebook for periods before: it becomes a pretty awful place in the run up to elections, for example, and I’d tended to opt out.

The difference this time was that I realised that I hadn’t missed it. I had thought that I enjoyed keeping up to date with the antics of schoolfriends and others I haven’t seen in decades, but I came to realise that frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. I’m just not that bothered about the minutiae of the lives of people I would probably no longer recognise on the street.

I was no worse off for not knowing the ins-and-outs of someone’s frustration with the covid one-way system in Tesco, or that the child of someone I barely know has drawn a picture of the virus, or that an acquaintance’s neighbour didn’t join the Clap for Carers. Conversations about these sorts of things are far richer than seeing them written on a screen could ever be. And seeing them baldly written on screen brought out a slightly judging side of my personality of which I’m not terribly fond.

I decided to make my absence a little more permanent. I initially prolonged my period of abstinence, but then came to worry that I might be notable by my absence. What if friends were ‘tagging’ me in posts and I was appearing to ignore them? This didn’t seem fair. And so, I decided to ‘deactivate’ my account.

‘Deactivating’ an account is what one must do on Facebook to keep using Facebook Messenger; it contrasts with ‘deleting’ an account, which removes all data and prevents a person from using any Facebook-badged services. There is no-one I speak to exclusively on Facebook Messenger, so I did ponder for a while whether to delete my account altogether given Facebook’s appalling privacy record. But I reflected that I use other Facebook services such as WhatsApp, so why create hassle for myself? ‘Deactivation’ was for me.

Except, my account mysteriously kept ‘reactivating’, and in a fit of pique when logging on to deactivate again, I got fed up and decided that account deletion was for me after all. I clicked the button… and then a seemingly endless parade of further confirmatory buttons.

I haven’t missed it since.

Oddly, covid briefly drove me back to Twitter. Social distancing’s ability to cancel meetings meant that I was missing my profession network, and I thought that engaging via Twitter might be a good idea. It didn’t work out well.

I engaged in a casual conversation with some microbiology colleagues about a small detail of some guidance with my employer’s logo on it, trying to understand the virological basis behind it. This is exactly the sort of ‘corridor’ conversation I would have in person all the time. It turned out that the guidance was wrong, and some colleagues were, I think, mildly annoyed that I’d had a public conversation about this.

I thought: what’s the point? Better to have conversations away from the febrile atmosphere of Twitter, where anything might end up offending people at any given moment. And so I disengaged again.

It took a long time for me to come to the decision to delete my Twitter account. I knew I didn’t want to use it for work or personal purposes, but I did auto-post to Twitter frequently. For example, my blog posts and Goodreads reviews usually auto-posted, and could lead to some interesting discussions both in person and online.

The problem was the same as for Facebook: what if my lack of attention to ‘mentions’ and messages were taken as a slight?

I initially changed my account name to include the words ‘unmonitored account’ and updated my ‘bio’ to say that I no longer used Twitter. But then, I came to reflect that I’m not self-obsessed enough to truly believe that people want to see my stuff auto-posted despite me not engaging with the service. I decided to delete my account altogether.

I have been surprised by how few people have even noticed my absence on these platforms, or at least asked me about it in person. Even members of my own family haven’t noticed that I’m no longer around on these services. The only time it has come up is when people have asked why they can’t tag me in posts.

I don’t think it has had any real impact on my own life with the exception of removing a complication. I have noticed that I have slightly richer social conversations, because when ‘catching up’ with people, I haven’t already derived most of what they’re telling me from online feeds: but I don’t know whether the other party feels the same way, or whether this is a biased judgement.

I have missed out on some cultural touchstones: I had no idea what Wendy was talking about earlier in the week when she was discussing the fact that Carol Vorderman had been upset, but that’s probably the sort of knowledge I can live without. The comments made by brands of tea about the Black Lives Matter campaign passed me by, but I don’t need advertising through political messaging in my life.

Contrary to much that is written on this topic, leaving these services has not ‘changed my life’ for good or ill. I suspect I’ll re-join these services or their successors in years to come. But the sort of social media offered by these three service is not for me right now. And I’m content with that.

Image credits: The image at the top of the post, showing a mobile phone with the Facebook logo scored out, was posted to Flickr by bookcatalog and is re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The second image is an edited screen capture of the Facebook homepage, made by me. The third image is a version of an image posted to Flickr by TT Marketing, which I have modified and re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The fourth image is a version of a picture posted to Flickr by Cambodia4kidsorg, which I have modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The fifth is another of bookcatalog’s pictures, modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The seventh is modified from an image posted by hedera baltica, re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The eighth and final image, which shows a crater on Mars, was originally posted by mariagat mariagat and has, again, been modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,492nd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , .

31 things I learned in May 2020

1: We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm.


2: A monk’s cowl is “meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves.”


3: “While the rest of us headed into lockdown worrying about whether we had enough toilet roll and ketchup, the super-rich were desperately trying to recruit live-in staff.” I’m not usually partial to cheap reverse snobbery, but that article had some zinging lines in it.


4: Paul Collier’s critique in The TLS of the UK Government response to covid-19 is the best I’ve read to date (though admittedly I’m trying to avoid reading too much on covid-19 outside of work). I don’t agree with the detail of all of his conclusions, but I think he brings important issues to the surface.


5: “There are many modern thinkers who emphasise the individual’s dependency upon society. It is, on the contrary, only the cultivation of interior solitude, among crowded lives, that makes society endurable.” So said John Cowper Powys, apparently. I tend to agree.


6: “In Europe, bunks on a night train have traditionally been set at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, like the teeth of a comb. In America, the custom was to place them lengthways, so that your body, when horizontal, slotted into the train like a bullet in the breach of a rifle.” I could have lived my entire life without this delightful bit of trivia ever coming to my attention.


7: “The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.” I’m a covid-19 app sceptic: I don’t think the uptake will be anywhere near 80% of smartphones (as is hoped) and nor do I think that there will be comparable compliance with isolation advice given by app and that given in a human conversation. Twelve months from now, when this post is published and the app has proven to be a rip-roaring success, you can comment and tell me what a fool I am for posting such silly predictions.


8: Moving a Bank Holiday to a Friday makes it more difficult to know what day it is. Lockdown and the consequent intense but irregular working pattern already made it hard enough for me.


9: The details in The Economist‘s cover images sometimes pass me by.


10: “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”


11: Gillian Tett’s observation that “Americans are wearily used to the idea that 40,000 die each year from guns, and many accept this as the price of freedom” helped me see grim fatalism as one response to the lifting of the covid lockdown: the polar opposite of the safety first, fear-driven response that many pundits predict will dominate.


12: “Britain is so preoccupied by the virus that it is devoting far too little attention to its Brexit negotiations, increasing the chances that an on-time Brexit will also be a bitter Brexit.” I’m fairly confident that, despite current bluster, the Government will end up asking for an extension of the transition period. (This post is rapidly turning into “31 predictions from May 2020” rather than 31 lessons…)


13: Will Self’s article on the mechanics of freelance journalism, published in the reputedly low-paying TLS, opened my eyes to the basic realities of that profession.


14: My local petrol station is now charging less than £1/litre.


15: “Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.” Bless.


16: Uncertainty about the safety and effectiveness of contact tracing apps is growing. The Economist has a published a leader on the topic: “They are an attractive idea. Yet contact-tracing apps are also an untested medical invention that will be introduced without the sort of safeguards that new drugs are subjected to. Inaccurate information can mislead health officials and citizens in ways that can be as harmful as any failed drug. Governments should proceed with care.”


17: “The most important breakthroughs in medical interventions – antibiotics, insulin, the polio vaccine – were developed in social and financial contexts that were completely unlike the context of pharmaceutical profit today. Those breakthroughs were indeed radically effective, unlike most of the blockbusters today.” This is obvious when you think about it, but I’ve never really thought about it before.


18: Multi-person iron lungs existed.


19: Chloe Wilson, who I’ve never come across before, seems to be quite a writer.


20: Cereal taught me the Korean idiom “when tigers used to smoke,” meaning a very long time ago. And also the lovely saying “deep sincerity can make grass grow on stone.”


21: Vitamin String Quartet covered the whole of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and somehow this news has passed me by for the best part of four years, even though I like Vitamin String Quartet and love Random Access Memories.


22: “A local leader characterises PHE’s response to the crisis as ‘carry on covid.'” It seems that even The Economist has now concluded that Public Health England is “unlikely to survive the crisis.”


23: This video introduced me to several new terms unique to the world of antiquarian book repair (though Slightly Foxed taught me the meaning of ‘slightly foxed’ some years ago!)


24: Itsu’s katsu rice noodles are lovely, even if they are basically a posh pot noodle.


25: Going for a drive to test one’s eyesight is, according to the government, an acceptable reason for deviating from “stay at home” advice.


26: How different artists approached drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


27: Dr Bonnie Henry has had some shoes made in her honour. And they sold out quickly.


28: A month ago, I don’t think I could have confidently defined ‘pangram’. Now, I’m coming across them everywhere: there’s been a running feature in The Times diary column, they feature in Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which I’m currently reading, and The Browser recently recommended an article about them. My current favourite is ‘amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes’.


29: The Twentieth Century Society made me aware that tax incentives promote new construction over refurbishment, which is part of the reason why perfectly sound buildings are often demolished rather than repurposed.


30: It’s been lovely to have a day off and go for a walk with Wendy. COVID-19 work has run us both ragged recently. I’ve also had my first takeaway coffee in several months.


31: According to anonymous sources talking to The Sunday Times, “Boris has always been clear that he doesn’t ever say sorry,” “these stories about Boris being fed up with the job are all true” and “the chances of Boris leading us into the next election have fallen massively.”

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