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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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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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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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