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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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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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