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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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31 things I learned in December 2019

1: Cotton creases because it contains cellulose fibres which are held in position with nothing more than hydrogen bonds. Non-iron shirts are coated in formaldehyde to effectively fix the hydrogen bonds. And hence, A-Level chemistry is relevant to office wear.


2: The Times of India publishes an astonishing fifty-six localised daily editions, and is the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in the world. It’s a slightly deflating sign of my unconscious cultural bias that when I saw the cover promotion for this article, I automatically assumed that the most widely circulated English-language newspaper would be a US title, despite that being completely illogical.


3: When fire service colleagues are at a multi-agency meeting, there’s no option to sit back for a minute to see if the fire alarm interrupting the meeting is real: all are out in the freezing in the car park within seconds.


4: Colleagues from Teesside University told me that the campus now hosts more than 18,000 residential students: that’s more than 10% of Middlesbrough’s population.


5: I had forgotten how much I enjoy Erland Cooper’s Solan Goose album until it popped up in my Spotify review of the year. It’s extraordinary.


6: It takes less time to walk from Middlesbrough Town Hall to James Cook Hospital than I imagined.


7: UNESCO has a list of Intangible Cultural Heritage—a philosophical minefield if ever I heard one.


8: Buying Christmas cards a year in advance is only a great idea if you can remember where you put them.


9: CDC’s definition of emerging infectious diseases is “those whose incidence in humans has increased in the past 2 decades or threaten to increase in the near future”. I’m sure I must have learned this in specialty training at some point, but honestly… I don’t remember.


10: I would feel a little less stressed if I’d started my Christmas shopping before now: I usually have it done and wrapped way in advance, but not this year.


11: If people voted for Brexit because they felt that “the establishment” ignored people like them, then the failure to “deliver” Brexit in a timely manner following the vote reinforces the preconception that their views are ignored. That might seem like an obvious point, but it hadn’t really occurred to me in such concrete terms.


12: The General Election result shows that being sacked for lying twice is no barrier to gaining the public’s trust.


13: One of our registrars explained to me that recommendations on management of clusters of pertussis differ to a surprising degree between countries.


14: 90% of interactions between members of the public and healthcare workers are with nurses. 2020 is the ‘Year of the Nurse’: if you’d asked me, I would have said that was 2019, but I guess that must be because I’ve heard so many conversations about planning for it rather than celebrations actually happening.


15: Mycobacterium tuberculosis kills more people each year than any other single pathogen. I think I would probably have guessed that, but still arresting to see it there in black and white.


16: Italy has closed all of its forensic psychiatric units.


17: At work, our team has dealt with nearly 1,000 more queries this year (so far!) than last year: a 40% increase. I knew it had been busy, but that’s mad.


18: Jameela Jamil, who I previously knew only as a star of The Good Place, is quite the controversial ‘social media activist’.


19: If you’d asked me to name the biggest film of 2019 by box office revenue, I couldn’t have told you it was Avengers Endgame, even if you’d given me the first word of the title. I didn’t know that Avengers films were made by Disney. I’ve no idea even now how many Avengers films there have been. I haven’t seen any of the other movies in the top ten. In other words, I’m culturally illiterate.


20: Trigger warnings don’t help people cope with distressing material. “The results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety.”


21: The Telegraph‘s reviewer really didn’t like the movie version of Cats. Zero stars.


22: I really don’t understand what separates good contemporary poetry from bad. In other words, I’m culturally illiterate.


23: When asked what he planned to give his girlfriend for Christmas, Boris Johnson replied “Get Brexit done”, which is—give or take a waffling peoration—the same answer he gave to a question about banning firework sales to the general public, a question about 500 public libraries closing, and a question about abuse of female MPs. It seems it might be a sort of reverse ‘supercalifragilisticexplialidoucious’: something one can always say when one doesn’t know what to say, but which makes one sound anything but precocious.


24: I rather naively believed the much-reported story that Netflix developed House of Cards on the basis of insights gleaned from the data on what aspects of other shows attracted an audience. It turns out, in fact, that the show was developed before Netflix became involved, and was just part of a traditional bidding war between broadcasters.


25: The path of 2019 has, at times, felt quite bumpy.


26: In the post-war years, there were ‘British Restaurants’ set up by the government “to serve cheap hot food for everyone so that people had enough to eat”.


27: The Premier Inn in Bangor is a surprisingly nice place for a Friday night drink.


28: The Starfish at Cairn Bay Lodge is a lovely place for lunch.


29: London has two branches of Ballie Ballerson, a cocktail bar set in a ball pit with more than a million balls. Learning of this reminded me that someone once asked me, in a professional context, how to clean a ball pit with many thousands of balls. It turns out that there are machines which claim to do that. In trying to find that answer, though, I found out that some international clinical settings have ball pits which is mind-boggling from an infection control perspective.


30: Only about 20% of bodies in England are buried in the UK as a whole; most people are cremated. The opposite is true in Northern Ireland. In most of the UK, ‘a funeral is typically held around one or two weeks after the death’. In Northern Ireland, ‘bereaved families hit out at not being offered a [Cremation] until four days after their loved one dies’. These statistics would be news to me if I hadn’t had the sad duty of attending two funerals in Northern Ireland this year: I’d far rather these had been lessons I wouldn’t have to learn for many to years to come.


31: Smokers have an increased risk of developing influenza compared to non-smokers: as much as 55% more likely to catch flu.

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