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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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29 things I learned in February 2020

1: Newcastle in County Down is nice, but I still prefer Newcastle upon Tyne.


2: Belfast International was ranked as the worst UK airport for passenger satisfaction in 2019, which feels reasonable.


3: My optician offered me “retinal screening” using optical coherence tomography, claiming that “the only downside is that it costs £25”. Cost is never the only downside to medical screening. I declined, but didn’t argue.


4: Someone has printed a map of China and put it on my desk. Hubei seems further East than the last time I looked. I’m pretty certain it’s my memory that’s faulty rather than the map.


5: Co-ordinating annual leave between Wendy and me isn’t easy.


6: After a 48hr run as Incident Director with an Incident Coordination Centre running, I can confirm with certainty: it’s exhausting. National colleagues doing longer stints with bigger ICCs under more pressure have some serious stamina.


7: The engineering challenges for high speed rail lines are more interesting to me, as a lay reader, than I would have imagined.


8: Americans report that they go to libraries almost twice as frequently as cinemas, averaging close to one library visit a month. I last visited a library two days ago and last saw a film in a cinema thirteen months ago.


9: “Amtrak recently announced that it’s getting rid of tablecloths all together because research suggested that millennials didn’t respond well to linen.” As far as I can tell, Amtrak hasn’t said anything about millennials’ response to linen, and the story about removing dining cars is four months old, so the lesson is that columnists can find straw men in the strangest places sometimes.


10: Boris Johnson’s government has started examining the feasibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Anyone mentioning the offshore engineer’s view that it “is about as feasible as building a bridge to the moon”, or Johnson’s previous Garden Bridge fiasco, or indeed his proposals for a bridge between England and France will probably just be branded a doubter, a doomster or a gloomster.


11: It has a name, and that name is covid-19. I didn’t hear the press conference, but assumed ‘covid’ rhymed with ‘Ovid’ (ɒ); others at work are pronouncing it more like ‘cove-id’ (əʊ). It’s the culture war over French vs Latin pronunciation of “difficile” all over again.


12: I’m currently reading Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and my addled mind is getting confused between things that happened in the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and things that are happening now in the covid-19 outbreak. There is a surprising amount of overlap.


13: The M96 is unique, and some people get very excited by a road which I use regularly and to which I’ve never paid a great deal of attention.


14: Infrared thermometer guns, currently much-photographed in connection with covid-19, are not always terribly accurate, especially outside of controlled clinical settings.


15: Twenty of our Prime Ministers went to the same school.


16: The number of ministers in the UK government is capped at 109, but Governments frequently find ways around that limit (mostly by appointing people without paying them). For comparion: in 1900, there were 60 ministers; in 2010, India had 68, South Africa 66, and Canada 63. I’m sure every one of our UK ministers is appointed based on merit and public service value, and not as mechanism to force people to vote with the Government line.


17: “Since the Lunar New Year holidays concluded, many pupils in Hong Kong have been required to attend lessons via video conference. But some have become a bit too comfortable with the home-learning set-up, leading schools to introduce a strict “no pyjama” policy.” It’s interesting to ponder how outbreak control measures can influence social norms. Will we all have dress codes for working from home in future? I suppose it seems likely as videoconferencing continues to become more common.


18: The Brit Awards, which haven’t really felt relevant in years, can still unexpectedly deliver immensely powerful moments.


19: I eat meat. It’s not a strong part of my personal identity in the way it seems to be for some people, and I’ll happily eat vegan dishes when the fancy takes me (hello vegatsu). Nonetheless, I eat animal products every day, and I thoroughly enjoyed being challenged by reading an excellent Michael Huemer essay from which I learned more about the libertarian counter-arguments to intensive farming of animals: “If animal suffering were even one thousandth as important as (qualitatively similar) human suffering, factory farming would still be among the most serious problems in the world today. (Imagine that 74 million humans were being tortured in factory-farm-like conditions each year. Unquestionably, this would be among the world’s greatest problems.)”


20: “Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’”


21: “Kinks and Convolutions” by James Lasdun in The LRB sold me on the book it was reviewing and also introduced me to the word “concupiscence” (Eager or vehement desire; in theological use, the coveting of ‘carnal things’, desire for the ‘things of the world’.)


22: In London, some people have now turned “entire new-build apartment blocks into de facto hotels designed for the short-term rental market”.


23: I’ve never thought before about how the basics of computer programming rely on a knowledge of English.


24: Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet has made me realise that I use emoji as either “emblematic” or “illustrative”. I like it when books make me realise something about my own behaviour that I hadn’t fully noticed myself!


25: I’d never really thought about the association between certainty of opinion (“everyone knows Tories are scum”) and decisiveness in terms of action planning (“I know exactly what I need to do here”) until I read this Diamond Geezer post. I now see that they are both facets of decision making, but I hadn’t previously spotted that thread between things that I have previously thought of as distinct attributes of character.


26: I’ve been musing for a while that use of the word “skyrocketed” to mean “increased quickly” has been increasing quickly as compared to use of the word “rocketed” for the same meaning. I initially thought this was misuse of “skyrocket” which I’ve always taken to mean “destroy” or “blow up”, a near synonym of “torpedo”: amusing because its almost the opposite of the sense in which people are intending it to be taken. But then I came to think it was used too commonly to be an error, and thought that it was perhaps an Americanism. The OED reveals that I’m right in one sense: use of “skyrocket” to mean “increase abruptly or rapidly” is marked as being of US origin, while “rocket” to mean “increase suddenly and very rapidly” appears to be of less certain origin. But I’m more wrong than I am right: “skyrocket” to mean “destroy utterly” is marked as rare and obsolete, which makes me wonder where I picked it up from in the first place.


27: Laura Spinney’s brilliant book taught me that the respiratory tract of pigs is generally vulnerable to influenza viruses which affect the gastrointestinal tract of birds and influenza viruses which affect the respiratory tract of humans. Hence, swine are often the sources of recombinant strains of influenza which can cause large outbreaks in humans.


28: This is hardly an original observation, but I was nonetheless dumbfounded at The Louvre to witness the neverending line of people spending the entirety of their allotted 30 seconds or so in front of the Mona Lisa with their back to it, the better to take a selfie. If Dadaism says changing the context of an object can transform it into art, does changing how people interact with the Mona Lisa transform it into a different artwork?


29: “A writer in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 proposed charging a ‘sin tax’ on novels (like those on alcohol and cigarettes today). Taxing them—but not ‘books of real utility’—would bring in valuable government revenue and encourage better reading habits.”

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