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31 things I learned in December 2020

1: The national lockdown unlocks tomorrow, so the time feels right for another deeply ill-advised prediction with potential to make me look like an idiot when you read this next year.

Here in Tier 3 country, the “great unlock” means that non-essential retail is to re-open. That is, people are going to be able to take public transport into their nearest city centre or shopping centre, and spend spend spend in poorly ventilated indoor spaces where the main control measures are stickers on floors. Indeed, Councils are planning to string up their regular Christmas lights to really draw in the crowds. This seems to be because it is assumed that the transmission risk associated with retail remains consistent even during winter weather and with Christmas crowds, which seems deeply unlikely to me.

On top of that, the Government is lifting lockdown at a point where the country is still seeing more than 14,000 new covid cases per day, which means we have a large pool of people ready to act as sources of infection: the 14,000 only counts confirmed infection, there will be many additional people each day with undetected infection because they are asymptomatic or choose not to be tested.

It’s hard to see any outcome other than case numbers bouncing up rapidly over the next three weeks: and with case numbers getting towards / as high as / even higher than the numbers immediately before the latest lockdown, it’s hard to see how the planned lifting of restrictions over Christmas can possibly go ahead… but it’s also impossible to see how, politically, this is something on which the Government can reverse ferret.

Even without the lockdown and tiering decisions, the Government boxing themselves into a decision a month ahead of time looks crazy to me: it may have been more prudent to announce conditional principles backed up by work with retailers and the travel sector to guarantee refunds for cancelled travel plans if the relaxation can’t proceed.

Though, perhaps with a larger dose of optimism than realism, Wendy’s Christmas flights to Northern Ireland are already booked.

2: From this book, I learned that it was only in 1938 that an Act of Parliament required every local authority to provide a fire service. If you’d asked me to guess, I’d probably have said it became a requirement after the Great Fire of London, putting me about three centuries out

3: Instagram has had a big impact on the design of luxury watches.

4: One can now take music grade exams, up to grade five, in DJing.

5: “Today’s Conservative Party has evolved into a nasty party, which has given us a government of inexperienced and incompetent ministers at a time when the coronavirus pandemic increases the necessity for strong and able leadership.”

6: “Johnson often compares himself to Pericles on the grounds that they both enjoy good speeches, democratic engagement, big infrastructure and fame. But Pericles built the Parthenon, not the Emirates Cable Car.”

7: The first autopsy in the New World occurred in 1533 “when the Catholic Church ordered an autopsy on the conjoined infant twins Joana and Melchiora, who had died eight days after birth. The goal was to determine if the children shared a soul; the priest baptized them both separately as a matter of precaution as he was not sure whether they represented two bodies and two souls or only one.” The conclusion? Two.

8: The vaccination programme has begun.

9: “In the pandemic we hear figures every day of the numbers of death, but death, if not denied, is unfamiliar. Even in these days of the pandemic death is not much in our everyday lives, and when it does come it is largely hidden. We rarely see people dying; we don’t see corpses. In contrast, in 19th century England death was present almost every day. It was dreaded and feared but utterly familiar.”

10: I never previously realised that octopuses are so interesting. And they have beaks!

11: The Prime Minister who, a year ago, offered the electorate an “absolute guarantee” of securing a trade deal with the European Union by the end of 2020 says it is “very, very likely” that he will break his promise. Even if we ignore the bluster and accept that it’s pretty likely that a deal will be done in the end, it’s hard not to see this posturing as deeply damaging to trust in politics.

12: Dominic Cummings is a joke.

13: How to escape from Titanic.

14: It didn’t have to be this bad.

15: I’ve never before clocked the (obvious) fact that bone china isn’t vegan or vegetarian friendly. I wonder if there’s a vegan crockery alternative to William Edwards for First Class passengers on British Airways?

16: On my rainy walk to work this morning, a group of 12- or 13-year-old boys ran past me with their teachers (or perhaps coaches) riding bikes alongside. As the stragglers slowed to a walk, one of the faster kids aggressively shouted, “Come on you lazy bastards, get moving!” Something about this scene jarred with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.

I think it may be something to do with rarely hearing this sort of hectoring in everyday life. Had I been one of the stragglers at that age—quite likely, if I hadn’t found an excuse to get out of running in the first place—this would have been the least effective strategy to get me moving faster, and perhaps the most likely to make me roll my eyes and snigger.

It also made me wonder whose behaviour the shouty child was modelling. Perhaps it’s a sports thing. I’ve chaired three outbreak control team meetings for elite sports teams in the past week, and I don’t think I’ve felt as culturally out of my depth since working at the Department of Health around Glyndebourne time.

17: If you asked me to name words that typically follow “agile” then “lighthouse” would not previously have featured among my answers. Yet the phrase “agile lighthouse” has been crowbarred into my vocabulary by people involved in the covid response who seem to speak a different version of English to me, and searching online reveals that it is genuine management speak.

18: It’s hard to disagree with Dominic Cummings’s assessment that “Issues of existential importance are largely ignored and our political systems incentivise politicians to focus more on Twitter and gossip-column stories about their dogs.”

It’s equally hard to ignore the profound pathos of that statement given that less than a year ago, he was hubristically describing the Government as having “a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity.”

Cummings is possibly the only man in Britain who needed to spend time in Government to appreciate that people who dedicated their lives to winning regular public popularity contests are people who dislike being disliked—and Alexander “Boris” de Pfeffel Johnson dislikes it more than most. It’s hard to conceive a more fundamental misjudgement of character than assuming this Prime Minister to be one who wouldn’t worry about short-term unpopularity in pursuit of more noble goals.

19: With the number of new confirmed covid-19 cases in the UK each day now similar to that at the introduction of the November lockdown, the planned lifting of restrictions over Christmas is cancelled. But, please guv’, it’s nothing to do with the Government’s decision-making, it’s all to do with a new variant of the virus.

20: In quite possibly the most bizarre bit of Government messaging to date, the Secretary of State for Health is urging everyone to “act like they have the virus” while imploring them to continue attending school, workplaces (if they can’t work remotely), take outdoor exercise in public spaces, visit essential retailers, and more besides—all of which are not allowed nor remotely sensible for people who have covid. Marr really ought to have asked, “Would you be sitting here in my studio if you had the virus?”

21: Napoleon, it is claimed, “directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”

22: “The government has consistently throughout this year been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regards to coronavirus.” I’m not sure to which curve the Home Secretary refers; presumably not the curve which, to date, shows that more than twice as many UK residents have died of or with covid-19 than voted for her at the last election.

23: There are seven kinds of gift… or maybe more.

24: “In the 1960s, NASA went to huge expense to contain possible pathogens from the Moon” but the measures were so disastrously poor that the effort would have had little effect. This is a great story: particular highlights are the choice to base control measures on spread of Yersinia pestis and that “NASA’s plans stipulated that quarantine at the LRL could be broken in the event of a medical emergency. Ironically, if a lunar microbe made an astronaut really sick, that astronaut would be removed from quarantine.”

25: “Even on the darkest nights there is hope in the new dawn.”

26: I’m currently really enjoying The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The novel (at least as far as I’ve read) has vignettes from Cyril Avery’s life aged 7, 14, 21 and so on, every seven years. This has made Wendy and me reflect on how this structure would reflect our own lives: both of us have collected five vignettes so far; each vignette would see us living in a different house, each at a different school or workplace. We’d both have few recurring characters outside family—though we’ve been together for the most recent three vignettes of each other’s stories.

27: “If you tell Facebook not to collect location information from your iPhone, then it doesn’t, right? Wrong.” The fact that Facebook collects oodles of data on users is hardly news, but now and again, something like this pops up and it feels so egregious that it almost lends credibility to the conspiracy theorists.

28: There’s a direct line of succession from the Acorn processor in the BBC Micro which sat in the corner at school to the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) processor in the iPhone I’m typing this on.

29: The iOS Reminders app has got much more fully featured since I last used it (around iOS 5).

30: A Government which claims to be keen on parliamentary sovereignty is ramming legislation through without time for proper parliamentary scrutiny and then shutting the doors on the House of Commons for an extra week. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is supporting the Government in implementing legislation it disagrees with, because it is unable to figure out a better approach. And in the world of 2020, all of this feels like par for the (lamentable) course.

31: At the stroke of 11pm, the Government’s actions stripped me of more freedoms and opportunities than at any other moment in my life so far.

Instead of having free pick of the job market across 28 countries, I’m limited to one. Instead of having the automatic right to live in any of 28 countries, I’m limited to one. No longer can I travel at will or whim across Europe; and no longer will I be guaranteed a lack of roaming charges.

Brexit is regrettable for much bigger reasons than those that affect me directly—not least friends born in other EU countries who have dedicated their lives to the NHS now being made to feel like second-class citizens (if even ‘citizens’ at all)—but when Government rhetoric is all about victory and celebration, it feels like tonight’s a night for self-indulgent melancholy.

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

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve finished six books this December, some of which were considerably better than others.

Problems by Jade Sharma

This 2016 debut novel is appropriately titled: the protagonist, Maya, is a married New York bookseller writing an MA thesis, while also having an affair with her former college professor, living with an addiction to heroin, and making questionable life choices in pursuit of money to fund her habit.

This book is gritty and explicit, with some bits which are stomach-churningly disgusting. It is also full of dark humour, which occasionally made me laugh out loud. The dialogue is especially sharp.

Sharma’s writing made this book feel true. Her close observation and vivid description feel real. I was particularly taken with the description of the protagonist’s shifting perceptions of.a psychiatric hospital.

The overall effect—despite the dark subject matter—was strangely uplifting, though it was certainly not a ‘light’ read.

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls’s 1982 novella in which the titular character falls in love with a giant man/frog/monster called Larry has recently been reissued with a lovely Faber Editions cover. It is a book with an engaging surface plot, which very funny in places, but whose subtext deals with a whole range of sociocultural issues.

There is a load of gender politics in here, which I expected from a sort of background cultural awareness of the book. Ingalls also has interesting observations to make about psychiatric illness, both for Mrs Caliban and for Larry. The latter aspect resonates with a lot of the themes explored in Frankenstein.

The writing is also sublime. At a little over a hundred pages, this could be comfortably read in a single sitting, and it is well worth that short time investment.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I confess that I went into this much-recommended recently published book with some trepidation and quite a lot of cynicism. Everything about it screamed “self-help” including the cringeworthy subtitle (“Embrace your limits. Change your life.”)

Nevertheless, Burkeman won me over. This isn’t really self-help, this is engaging philosophy which happens to be relevant to the moment. Burkeman argues that life is short and our time ought to be lived, not seen as a resource to be ‘used’. We should recognise and make peace with the fact that there will never be time to do everything that we want to do, nor everything that is demanded of us. Being more productive will not substantially alter that fundamental fact, but the effort might distract us from living.

I really enjoyed this, and will search out Burkeman’s other books.

JFK: Volume One by Fredrik Logevall

This 2020 biography was a Christmas present last year, and I’ve been reading it in chunks through the year. It is an exceptionally detailed account of JFK’s life, up to the point where he decided to run for President.

Unfortunately, this is one of those astoundingly well-researched biographies that contains so much detail that it feels like it loses its thread. It is only 654 pages long, but feels much longer, and it felt a little like the sense of the subject’s character got lost among the weeds.

At one point, Kennedy is invited to a house to watch some film footage he is to narrate. Logevall insists on telling us that this was a “twenty-room beachfront home” which was “built in 1936 for film industry titan Louis B. Mayer”—details that add precisely nothing to a visit that lasts one sentence, beyond exhibiting the research.

I’m uncertain whether I’ll read the second volume.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Earlier this year, I thoroughly enjoyed Rovelli’s collection of essays, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness. This led me to pick up Seven Brief Lessons, Rovelli’s best-selling and most famous work.

First published in Italian in 2014, I read Allen Lane’s 2015 translation. The book consists of six numbered brief lessons on aspects of physics, followed by a somewhat philosophical closing section called ‘Ourselves’, which serves as the seventh lesson.

Somewhere into the third lesson, I came to the shuddering realisation that I simply wasn’t all that interested in physics. Rovelli writes with lyrical clarity about complex subjects. I used to very much enjoy reading popular science, yet I found myself struggling to be astounded that general relativity and quantum mechanics sometimes disagree. Nor was I moved to really care whether black holes are hot or cold. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.

The final section was a little more absorbing, partly because it involved Rovelli introducing his physicist’s perspective to wider questions such as the future of our species, which, I think, is what I enjoyed about There Are Places…

Essentially, overall, this was beautiful writing about a complex subject that doesn’t really interest me. There is enjoyment and value in that, but perhaps less than I was expecting to find.

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig

This 2021 bestseller was a bad purchasing decision on my part, and one driven by online shopping during lockdown. I enjoyed Haig’s previous books, Notes on a Nervous Planet and Reasons to Stay Alive, though as I noted at the time, I preferred his personal reflections on his experiences rather than the aphorisms and superficial psychology.

I think others may have had exactly the opposite opinion, as The Comfort Book is essentially a compendium of short ‘inspiring’ texts, some extending to only a few words, others to a couple of pages. None of this is up my street, and had I flicked through the book in a physical shop before I bought it, then I would have known that.

I’m confident this will book will bring a lot of comfort to many people, but it wasn’t my sort of thing.

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30 things I learned in November 2020

1: I’ve managed to keep a series of posts on my blog running for a year rather than giving up after about a month.

2: William Barr is someone we may be hearing more about in the coming days.

3: I recently read Lawrence Douglas’s Will He Go? and the first 24 hours after the polls closed in the US presidential election have been just as mad as he predicted. But I wasn’t convinced by Douglas’s arguments on the abolition of the Electoral College, and Ian Frazier’s piece in the New York Review which I read this morning strengthened my view. (I also realised this morning how mad the dating of New York Review issues is: it’s more than two weeks before the cover date and I’m reading a printed copy in Newcastle!)

4: Airline seatbelts are quite interesting.

5: A large survey of English adults conducted in May by researchers in Oxford found that “almost half think covid-19 may have been deliberately engineered by China against ‘the West’. Between a fifth and a quarter are ready to blame Jews, Muslims or Bill Gates, or to give credence to the idea that ‘the elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government’; 21 per cent believe – a little, moderately, a lot or definitely – that 5G is to blame, about the same number who think it is ‘an alien weapon to destroy humanity.’”

Once I’d recovered from the pain of that revelation, the same article delivered a good belly-laugh: “There’s a danger that in writing about QAnon – a social phenomenon not just in the US but in Britain, Germany and many other countries, and endorsed by a number of Republican candidates – you make it sound more interesting and mysterious than it is. It is interesting, but in the way hitting yourself in the face with a hammer is interesting: novel, painful and incredibly stupid.”

6: Channel 4 is seizing on US electoral chaos to advertise the availability of The West Wing on their streaming service, and even just seeing the trailers makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy.

7: “There are huge opportunities for using data science to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of care. These opportunities are being needlessly neglected through a lack of clear career paths, and a historic failure to harness existing best practice into a commons of knowledge. But there is a vast skilled workforce that could, through use of open methods and structured support from the NHS, rapidly deliver an explosion in high-quality, verifiable, shared analytics.”

Disastrous data management, and a critically poor understanding of the relationship between population level data and individual clinical care, is one of the as-yet untold stories of the failure of covid-19 control in England. I hope we learn from that, and build upon those lessons to do everything Goldacre and co suggest.

8: Some of the best books of 2020 don’t actually exist.

9: Amazon has only just launched in Sweden. It didn’t go well, with the retail giant encountering problems both serious and trivial. “For reasons known only to Amazon itself, the Argentine rather than the Swedish flag was placed next to the word Sweden on the site’s country picker. Then there were the disastrous automatic translations that saw a cat-themed hairbrush described using the Swedish slang for ‘vagina’ (clearly the result of a direct translation of ‘pussy’), a children’s puzzle featuring yellow rapeseed flowers described as having a ‘sexual assault flower motif’, and football shirts labeled as ‘child sex attack shirt’.”

It all reminded me a little of this (which surely counts as pre-historic in internet terms).

10 : “The PM is given to expansive rhetoric and ‘Moonshot’ ambitions; if mere words could defeat a pandemic and conceal the tearing up of a treaty, he would be carried shoulder high up Whitehall.”

11: Mass testing for covid-19 is now well underway in Liverpool, but questions remain about the effectiveness of the assessment of the pilot. “The Department of Health is being incredibly secretive about how this pilot is going to be evaluated. There’s a National Screening Committee which we’ve had in the UK for 20 years, and they’ve been sidelined from this. There’s a big concern that we’re not going to learn what we should because we don’t know what studies are being done alongside it, and the right scientists haven’t been involved … We still have public health teams who are underfunded to do track and trace, and people have been saying for six months that’s the way to control things on a national scale. There’s a cost effectiveness question here, and it’s not a case of mass testing or nothing. It’s this or some of the other alternatives.”

12: There was a time, not that long ago, when politicians disagreed civilly, and leaders clarified misconceptions about their opponents and worked to raise the tone of public discourse.

13: Paul Flynn’s interview with Sarah Jessica Parker in the latest Happy Reader made me reflect on the differences in our responses to Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, and contemplate the everyday sexism those responses perhaps reveal. As Parker and Flynn point out, why are Soprano’s murders downplayed and yet Bradshaw’s profligate spending on fashion overplayed in popular notions of those characters?

14: Once upon a time, computer mice with built-in telephones were a thing.

15: “Most sex between giraffes is homosexual: in one study, same-sex male mounting counted for 94 per cent of all sexual behaviour observed.”

16: Reading about how dismissive rudeness was at least part of the underlying cause of the downfall of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings. In some ways, it feels like a repeat of the same mistakes Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were perceived to have made. Civility in seniority is perhaps an under-rated quality among those making the appointments.

17: In an order confirmation email, fashion and homeware retailer Next says “we are working incredibly hard to get your items to you.” They apparently underestimate my credulousness.

18: This book taught me that the Olympic torch relay is an entirely modern creation, a Nazi idea introduced for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

19:  I find it hard to disagree that “the pandemic has brutally exposed a centre that has control over the country’s resources but does not know what’s happening on the ground.”

20: The Home Secretary has engaged in “forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing” which left some Civil Servants upset. The implication of the Prime Minister judging her not to have broken the Ministerial Code is that this was not “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable.” Which either means the Prime Minister doesn’t believe shouting and swearing to be intimidating or insulting, or that he doesn’t believe those who claim to have been upset, or that he doesn’t believe the Home Secretary engaged in the behaviour described. The Government’s statement isn’t clear on which of these is the case.

21: While pondering whether I should send an email at work today, I caught myself reflecting on Marcus Aurelius and Meditations. This is completely ridiculous, embarrassingly knobbish, surprisingly frequent and really quite helpful, all at the same time.

22: Some big wotsits were towed out of the Port of Tyne this afternoon. I assume they were bits of oil rigs, but don’t really know.

23: This book taught me the depressing word hemoclysm (coined by an American, so no ‘a’ or ‘æ’).

24: For a few years, while I was contributing to some guidelines, NICE used to invite me to their annual conference as a guest. One of the most memorable presentations in the years I attended was one on the extraordinary results of getting GPs to opportunistically remind older people not to sleep with their bedroom windows open: something that was commonly advised decades ago but which led to many older people sleeping in rooms which were unhealthily cold. A simple clarification in this DHSC campaign could have saved lives; I worry that the lack of one may do the opposite.

25: Twenty-six fire have broken out on buses in Rome this year alone. “The most dramatic incident occurred in the early hours of Saturday when an out-of-service bus burst into flames in the Aurelio neighbourhood. As the driver leapt to safety the heat melted the brakes, sending the bus rolling down a shopping street, torching six parked cars and four mopeds as it passed, causing a shop front to disintegrate in the heat and the windows of ground-floor apartments to explode. The bus, which was purchased seven years ago, eventually careered into a line of dustbins, setting them on fire as it slowed to a halt.”

26: I’ve never really thought about what happens to sailors when shipping companies collapse. It turns out it’s complicated and distressing.

27: I’ve never given a lot of thought to the logic of art restoration, but this article made me think about it. “Over a hundred years ago, the United States Army began looking into turning the Statue of Liberty back to her original copper color. ‘As might be expected, when the Statue of Liberty turned green people in positions of authority wondered what to do,’ writes Frazier. ‘In 1906, New York newspapers printed stories saying that the Statue was soon to be painted. The public did not like the idea.’ In the end, nothing was done. Change was accepted, and we let her green skin stay. And like a word moving through years, shifting its meaning, she continues to change, ever so slightly.”

28: It’s the first frost of the season, and the first day I’ve felt the need to don gloves for the walk to work.

29: This is a fantastic review of the human biological impact of space flight. In summary: it’s complicated.

30: Some people feel so strongly that face masks are unsafe that they scrawl messages on walls. I’m not sure what specific harms concern the author(s).

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

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