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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 January 2020

1: Alan Bennett had open-heart surgery in Spring 2019 and the news completely passed me by.

2: A paucity of Papal patience provides problematic publicity for a Pontiff preaching peaceful pacifism to pious pilgrims.

3: Norovirus probably causes about two-thirds of care home outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease.

4: Fewer than 20% of schools in Texas teach children about safe sex. Texas is among the States with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Any connection is disputed by conservatives.

5: I’m reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive at the moment, and there’s a line advocating for greater ‘mood literacy’ which I found a rather lovely turn of phrase. It reminded me of this blog post advocating examination of one’s own response to the outside world to better understand one’s mood. Both taught me something about self-examination.

6: One of the room booking systems at work requires me to “invite” a given room to attend a meeting. I’ve now learned through bitter experience that rooms can decline invitations… which felt a little humiliating, even if it does open up a whole new seam of entertaining insults (e.g. “that meeting sounds so pointless that even the room declined the invitation”).

7: Populist ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in politics are commonly discussed and clearly dangerous. I’ve been reminded today by an article on the lack of legislation around in vitro fertilisation research in the USA that the opposite—a complete failure to react because issues are complex and divisive—can be just as dangerous.

8: Merely possessing a placebo analgesic, without even opening it, has been shown to reduce pain intensity.

9: The average age of a BBC One viewer is 61. If one considers that a problem, as the BBC seemigly does, then I suppose one might conclude that removing children’s programmes from the channel was not the right approach.

10: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is only a short walk from the city centre and is a great place for a winter stroll. The uphill walk back to the city centre is a touch more tiring.

11: Over the past decade, the proportion of the UK’s electricity generated from wind and solar power has increased from 2.4% to 20.5%. The proportion from coal has fallen from 31% to 2.9%. (As reported in Positive News, though the specific article isn’t online.)

12: Aspiring comedians often go on ‘introduction to stand up’ courses. I’d never thought about these sorts of courses existing, but of course they do.

13: More than half of Luxembourgers speak four languages. The best-selling newspapers in Luxembourg have articles in two languages. This makes me feel inadequate.

14: In the 1990s, John Major mooted renaming Heathrow airport after Churchill, while Lindsay Hoyle and William Hague fancied naming it after Diana.

15: I have long known the North East is an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in primary care, but hadn’t fully realised until a meeting today that the North East isn’t an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in secondary care.

16: I was surprised to read that a survey suggested that only one in three people on the UK knows the standard VAT rate is 20%, and one in ten knows the basic rate of national insurance is 12%. But then, on reflection, my own surprise surprised me, because I don’t really know how or why I know those figures myself. I’m sure there are plenty of similar figures on which I’d have no idea myself!

17: Since last September, Monday to Friday, the City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country.

18: The developers of Morecambe’s Central Retail Park have “put an extraordinary amount of effort into stylising the car park” including quirky themed artworks, sculpted steel waves and effigies of seabirds diving for fish.

19: In the US, a broadly similar amount is spent on treatment for back pain ($88bn) and treatment for cancer ($115bn).

20: Office for National Statistics Travel to Work Areas are an interesting way of dividing up the country.

21: Civil servants in China cannot ordinarily be dismissed. One wonders what Dominic Cummings makes of that.

22: Over 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds in China are short-sighted. The Communist Party has set targets for reducing that, leading to some slightly strange practices in schools, including compulsory twice-daily eye massages and dressings-down for those whose sight worsens over time.

23: It’s not a public health emergency of international concern.

24: Blinded trials are not always best. I remember having to write an essay or answer an exam question on this topic at some point in the past, but haven’t really thought critically about it in years.

25: The attendance fee for the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos is 27,000CHF (£21,400). I will never complain about medical conference registration fees again!

26: Luxury branded homes—as in, “I live in a Bulgari residence” or “I’m in the Porsche apartments”—are now a thing. Is it possible that this is a global conspiracy to see how far the definition of “gauche” can be pushed?

27: “We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love.”

28: “To err is manatee. A manatee might mistake a swimmer’s long hair for shoal grass and start munching away, oblivious to the attached figure. To err is baby elephant, tripping over her trunk. To err is egg-eater and moonrat and turnstone and spaghetti eel, and whales, who eat sweatpants.

29: Pulmonary tuberculosis can be detected in babies by doing PCR tests on faecal specimens. Sensitivity of the test varies according to the exact methods used, and this is an active area of research.

30: It’s a public health emergency of international concern.

31: The TV series Love Island has an unexpectedly innovative business model which involves selling items seen on the show via the app which viewers download to vote for contestants.

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The day I met a Giant Panda called Bai Yun

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of visiting Bai Yun, a 26-year-old Giant Panda, at San Diego Zoo. I’ve never seen a panda in the flesh before, though didn’t need to come as far as San Diego to do so: Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo are a good 5,200 miles closer to home.

The visit was a relatively hurried one: even on a Wednesday afternoon, there was quite the queue to see the panda enclosure and the zoo staff members were keen to keep people moving. (As an aside: I suspect the employees would also object to me describing them here as “zoo staff members”, as they kept correcting visitors with a note of mild irritation that this wasn’t “part of the zoo” but rather a “dedicated panda research facility”.) Nevertheless, it was certainly a memorable experience. I was particularly struck by how cute the pandas were in real life: just as cute as in the cutest pictures.

As a general rule, I’m not much of an “animal person”. However, I make an exception for panda bears. Wendy asked me this afternoon what it was about pandas that overcame my general disinterest in animals, and I think it comes down to three things.

Firstly, pandas are ridiculous creatures. They have the gastrointestinal tract of a carnivore, yet insist on a diet of pure bamboo, which they can’t properly digest. This means that they need to eat some 20kgs per day to survive, taking up around 14 of their 20 waking hours per day, and resulting in a need to defaecate about every half hour. If ever there were a creature that should be extinct, the panda is it.

Secondly, panda diplomacy is fascinating. For thousands of years, China has been using gifts (and latterly loans) of pandas to further its political aims. No other country has managed to replicate this with such success with any other animal—and it’s not that easy to think of many diplomatic practices with quite such a long and lustrous history. The zoo staff members regularly reminded vistors that the bears and any offspring were owned by China and that the results of their panda research were regularly reported back to the Chinese. Panda diplomacy even turns up as a C-plot in The West Wing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pandas are really really cute. I mean, just look at that picture. There’s a lot written in the scientific literature about why pandas are so cute: most sources seem to suggest that it is because their faces appear proportionally similar to those of babies. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but I certainly like them!

The picture at the top was, fairly obviously, taken by me earlier today.

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