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30 things I learned in September 2020

1: “We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked.”


2: Reminded of Ogden Nash’s observation that “Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker,” and his later regretful postscript that “Nothing makes me sicker / Than liquor / And candy / Is too expandy.”


3: Artificial banana flavours are usually based on a type of banana which is no longer commonly sold, which is why banana flavour generally doesn’t taste like banana. It’s all the same to me, as I don’t really enjoy either.


4: The Economist says Donald Trump is very likely to challenge the result of the US presidential election. By the time this blog post is published, you’ll have the benefit of hindsight in knowing whether that prediction comes true. As I write this on a bright and windy September morning in Bangor, it feels depressingly hard not to assume—despite the statistical modelling—that Trump won’t somehow win the election without any legal challenge. It’s noticeable how much tighter the odds are at the bookies than in the press: William Hill is offering the same 10/11 odds for both Trump and Biden wins, while The Economist’s tracker has Biden on an 85% chance of winning.


5: Kindles collect more data than you would think.


6: “The pandemic will end. But in India, Tunisia and Peru, there are signs the surveillance will not.”


7: “There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year. There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free-trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”


8: Maps in journalism are hard.


9: “Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe.”


10: “The ‘Moonshot’ scheme is better understood as a benign version of President Trump’s wall: a populist symbol of intent and determination, designed to mobilise public support and confidence, with little or no chance of being completed. It is surely no accident that the plan leaked on the very day that Johnson urged the country to behave with greater responsibility, limited gatherings to six and reminded people to wash their hands, wear masks and observe social distancing. After the stick, this was a carrot-shaped moonshot.”


11: Elisabeth Blik is a leading “image sleuth” in biomedical research. Who knew that was a thing?!


12: London’s bridges really are falling down. “Hammersmith Bridge is an apt metaphor for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic, the last of which has decimated already-stressed public finances.”


13: Her Majesty’s Theatre is in a sorry state:


14: “Everyone has been in a meeting where the most vocal and confident person in the room clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But the most harmful meetings are the ones where that’s happening and the group can’t even recognize it.” I wonder to what extent this problem plagues Government decision-making?


15: A refreshingly clear account of what went wrong with GCSE and A-Level results this summer.


16: I’m reading Lorna Arnold’s account of the accident at Windscale in 1957 at the moment. The opening chapter portrays a small localised part of a national organisation that is undergoing a massive politically driven restructure, which cannot recruit enough professional expert staff to replace those it is losing, let alone to support the enforced expansion. Arnold says, “Windscale was over-worked and under-manned with inadequate research support, but it was a well-run site with hard-working and dedicated staff. They tackled their problems tenaciously, overcame formidable difficulties and met the demands made on them.” The whole section feels like it could be lifted from the inevitable covid-19 inquiry.


17: “The problem with the fall of a democracy is that it doesn’t simply happen, like a rain shower or a thunderstorm. It unfolds, like the slow and steady warming of the climate. Liberties aren’t eliminated, they are restricted and violated – until they erode. Rights aren’t abolished, they are undermined and trampled – until they become privileges. Truths aren’t buried, they are mocked and twisted – until everyone has their own. A democracy doesn’t stumble and fall; it slides into decline.”


18: The Prime Minister, who pledged in April that he would not “throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and risk a second major outbreak” of covid-19 acknowledges that the UK is “now seeing a second wave” of covid-19.


19: Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. She was inspirational in so many ways. Her career-long elucidation of how the whole of society is harmed by discrimination on the basis of sex is a message which is feels still hasn’t been fully absorbed across US and UK society even in 2020.


20: A month ago, I was very sceptical… but Streaks has proven remarkably at convincing me to remember to do important but mundane everyday tasks that I otherwise frequently forget (like flossing).


21: The Government’s peri-peri-ometer is rising back to “hot”.


22: Everyone was in the office, then out, then in, then out. Just one more cycle left before we get to shake it all about, do the hokey-cokey and turn around.


23: It’s 21 years—22 by the time this is published—since I registered my first domain name.


24: It’s not so long ago that Wendy first came across (and was appalled by) Fanny Craddock, thanks to a repeat of her Christmas series, so I read this profile with amusement. (“Her appearance got more striking each year, and by the time of that Christmas series—presented without Johnnie—she resembled a psychedelic Cruella de Vil, her face heavily powdered, her eyebrows plucked and redrawn an inch above her eyes, her hair decorated with large pink ribbons. She was—and still is—magnificently watchable, partly because she’s so elusive; she switches from ingratiating smiles to impatient scowls so quickly that one can’t tell what she’s thinking or feeling, whether she wants to embrace her viewers or rap their knuckles.”)


25: Subscription shoes are (almost) a thing now: when this post goes live in twelve months’ time, they should have launched.


26: The jabot is back in fashion. Apparently.


27: Since Pret launched takeaway coffees by subscription, their shops have been rammed and I’ve had to join a long queue to buy my lunch. The staff in my local shop have been not-so-quietly grumbling about the amount of money the store is losing as a result. It’s hard to know whether a reverse ferret might be coming, or whether this is a “first month” effect (given that the first month is free).


28: “Of systemic action adopted in England for the pre- vention of the importation of infectious diseases, the system of quarantine (in the commonly received sense of that term) performs an extremely small part.” Only written 143 years ago.


29: American presidential debates rarely change election outcomes.


30: FTP is dying.

This 2,500th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, .

31 things I learned in August 2020

1: “Just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage. [But] we should scrutinize all large institutions, whether they’re companies, government agencies, or non-profits. [Amazon’s] responsibility is to make sure we pass such scrutiny with flying colors.”


2: Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, published on behalf of the Home Office, ‘approved by ministers’ and retailing at £12.99, is ‘the only official handbook on which the Life in the UK test is based’. Last week the Historical Association published an open letter – signed so far by more than 350 historians – pointing out that the handbook is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’.” I remember a lot of fuss about this when the test and guide were first launched, but as the noise had subsided I unthinkingly assumed that it had just been quietly and gradually fixed. It seems that’s not true. I’ve tried three online practice tests and, while the content did seem a little like a pub quiz, I did pass all three, which clearly makes me a better citizen than the New Statesman team.


3: Covid has converted a lot of people to online food shopping, my parents included. It will be interesting to see whether the days of the trolley are over for good, or whether people will return to supermarkets in the future.


4: “All roads lead back to Barnard Castle mate. That’s what f**ked it.”


5: I still look young enough to have my ID checked when ordering alcohol…at least at Yo Sushi.


6: The commandments are not consistently numbered: in both Judaism and Protestantism, the seventh commandment is “thou shalt not commit adultery,” but that’s the sixth commandment in Catholicism. (And only 21 years late, I finally get the “joke” about the ordering of commandments in the first episode of The West Wing.)


7: I’ve been in two notable public toilets (!) in the last couple of days, which seem to me to be making steps towards greater inclusivity. One, in Geneva, had a tampon dispenser in the men’s. The other, in London, was a single combined facility for all genders and abilities (with individual cubicles including accessible facilities and baby changing spaces all off a central hand-washing atrium).


8: Major Harold Hering was sacked for asking a sensible question.


9: A load of genes have been renamed with an eye on how Microsoft Excel processes their names.


10: From a delightfully odd piece of writing in the FT by Judy Joo, I learned of Hugh Hefner’s “FU pea”.


11: Anything can be a temporary roundabout if it tries hard enough.


12: Alice Wickenden’s essay in the Summer 2020 edition of the Brixton Review of Books (not online) was moving and powerful. It made me think in detail for the first time about the particular and awful trauma of being raped by a friend and working out how to live with that.


13: New desk, new office, same job.


14: Some days are just exhausting.


15: In 2012, the Conservative mantra was to “streamline existing health improvement and protection bodies” into a single agency. In 2020, Conservatives complain that “instead of having an organisation that is constantly on alert for pandemics you have an organisation that has been concentrating on prevention of ill-health.”


16: “PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have. There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last seven years. We should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system in which they are but one cog.”


17: It’s possible for the Government to mess up A-Level grades more than anyone expected, despite having the Scottish experience to learn from in advance.


18: “Ministers cut PHE’s budget from £397.9m in 2015 to just under £300m this year and cut the public health grant that local councils in England receive by 22% over the same period.”


19: I’m less good at leaving work at a reasonable hour now that I work in a building that opens 24/7 rather than one that slings me out at 7pm.


20: “The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.”


21: A conductor’s “baton has to be a certain length based on how tall the person is. Ideally it’s balanced, it should sit on the finger, so when you go to make a gesture the stick moves in a coordinated fashion. A great baton is one you don’t really feel.”


22: “At the end of June, the navy announced that the marines were getting new uniforms, which the Times described as ‘hi-tech’ because the material includes a small amount of spandex.”


23: “A typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food.” And ours isn’t even set to the right time.


24: “It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing.”


25: Perhaps a year ago, I had a very stimulating conversation with a friend and colleague about unconscious bias in medical education. It made me realise that it was something to which I hadn’t given enough thought, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since. I’ve made a few changes in response to stuff I’ve read on the topic, the most noticed of which has been soliciting anonymous feedback via my work email signature—an idea I brazenly purloined from a friend who works in tech but who struggled with essentially the same question. I initially used Admonymous, but then moved to a custom-made single-question survey using my employer’s survey platform after (probably needlessly) worrying myself about information governance. Now, I seem to be reading more and more about the importance of curiosity in making accurate assessments about the world, like this article by Sanne Blauw. And really, failure to interpret the world accurately is at the heart of unconscious bias. So now I’m musing on how I can be more curious, which seems hard in the time-pressured conditions everyone in healthcare recognises. Food for thought.


26: Just like many smart watches today, the first digital watches didn’t have enough power to continuously display the time.


27: Eighteen months after my first visit to the Sagrada Família, this David Cerqueiro profile of Etsuro Sotoo—a sculptor who has worked on the building for more than four decades—gave me a slightly different appreciation for it.


28: Perfect Crime is the longest running play in New York’s history, performed eight times a week since 1987. Catherine Russell (who sounds a bit of a character) has played the lead in all but four performances.


29: “In a typical shopping trip, 60-80% of the time is spent in ineffective wandering, as customers deviate from a path that would be the shortest route to obtain the goods they purchase.”


30: Forensic botany is a thing. I know it features endlessly in the Sherlock Holmes books, but I didn’t know it happened in real life.


31: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

This 2,498th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned.

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.


2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.

Postbox

3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.


4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”


5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.


6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.


7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.


8: Goats have rectangular pupils.


9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.


10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”


11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.


12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.


13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).


14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.


15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.


16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.


17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:


18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”


19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”


20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”


21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.


22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.


23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”


24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.


25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”


26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?


27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”


28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.


29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.


30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.


31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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