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Five links worth clicking

The fourth in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.


As the lock rattles

This is a bit of a cheat because I read it in the paper LRB rather than online. John Lanchester’s article on the pandemic is well worth reading for both its detailed analysis and its snark about our wholly unable Prime Minister.

It isn’t always possible to draw a straight line from someone’s personal life to their public works. Johnson’s private life is his business. But one thing you can say about a man responsible for at least nine pregnancies by at least four different women is that he is prone to wishful thinking. That wishful thinking is the common theme in the government’s failures from spring 2020 to autumn 2020 to now. Johnson doesn’t want certain things to be true, so he acts as if they can be ignored. That strategy has worked for him in domestic politics. It was at the heart of his advocacy for Brexit. But it doesn’t work in economics, and it doesn’t work in dealing with a pandemic.

Lanchester’s discussion of the topic on the LRB podcast is also worth a listen.


Things fell apart

I listen to quite a lot of speech radio, but without wanting to disappoint Auntie, I have been a bit of a BBC Sounds refusenik. It’s a stupidly named service with a hard-to-navigate app that has never seemed relevant to my life.

Yet, when searching for something completely unrelated online recently, I discovered that Jon Ronson had made a radio series for BBC Sounds, which has also had an edited run on Radio 4. The series began in November, and despite being a fan of Ronson’s work and therefore presumably within the target market, the Beeb’s marketing didn’t reach me until after it had finished, but the whole series remains available.

Once I knew it existed, I enjoyed this series. Each episode investigates the ‘origin’ of a particular aspect of the ‘culture wars’, which sounds tedious, but with Ronson’s gentle humour and humanity, it becomes a collection of interestingly strange and moving tales.


Not a drill

The relationship of the USA to guns is one that always feels difficult to grasp from a British perspective. This chilling Atlantic article from Nicole Chung describes her experience of a receiving a text from her 13-year-old daughter in the middle of the morning telling her that she is sheltering at school as there is an active shooting threat.

I was in high school when Thurston and Columbine happened, which means I was in high school before it occurred to me that I could be shot in my school. This knowledge is something that American schoolkids of all ages live with now. My 13-year-old has been participating in shooter drills since she was 3 years old—though when she was younger, her teachers couched them in vague, less frightening terms. I remember the day she came home from preschool and told me, “We practiced what to do in case someone is in the school who shouldn’t be.” She described her teacher locking the doors, turning off the lights, and herding all the students into a small bathroom, where they were told to sit still and stay “very, very quiet.” “It was hard. We weren’t very quiet,” she admitted.

This is one of those articles that just stopped me in my tracks.


Clinical negligence reform is an ethical and financial necessity

Ian Kennedy’s suggestion for reform of the NHS approach to clinical negligence, as published in Prospect, is clear and convincing.

The crux of the approach is this: we should separate the needs of the patient from the conduct of the professional/institution.

I’d struggle to mount a convincing argument against.


‘Daddy isn’t coming back’: surviving my partner’s suicide

There isn’t a line in Manuela Saragossa’s FT story that isn’t worth your time, but this one particularly spoke to me:

The meds were to treat schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar, the worst of both terrible worlds. In Steve’s case, his illness manifested as persistent delusions, mania and depression.

“It’s just in your mind,” I would tell him, uselessly, after an episode, once the volume had turned down on the recurring, persecutory thoughts that tormented him. “My mind is all I have,” he would rightly reply.

This is a moving and direct account of living with a partner with severe mental illness, and coming to terms with his untimely death. In another universe, I’m a psychiatrist: I came very close to applying for specialty training in psychiatry, before opting for public health. I don’t think I would have been all that good at it, in retrospect.

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Five links worth clicking

The second in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.


What does Fluffy think?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a strong attachment to animals: it’s just not a feature of my personality. I like a cute fluffy panda, but wouldn’t want one in my garden. And I struggle to even imagine the sort of attachment that causes people to risk their own health by continuing to live with their TB-riddled cat or a budgerigar which is destroying their lungs.

So, what of those who enjoy sexual relationships with animals? And where is the intersection between artificial insemination of farm animals and, well, insemination for pleasure? And in the context of society accepting the killing of animals on an industrial scale for food, why is using them for sexual gratification judged to be so much worse?

While sex with ‘companion animals’ — dogs (canophilia), cats (aelurophilia) and horses (equinophilia) — is the most prevalent form of human-animal sex, humans are also known to engage sexually with donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, turkeys, hamsters, dolphins, eels, octopuses and (less commonly) camels, deer, llamas, bulls, boars and gorillas. Sexual attraction to certain creatures is common enough to have a scientific name: mice (musophilia), birds (ornithophilia), spiders (arachnephilia), bees (melissophilia) and snakes (ophidiophilia).

Bees?! Amia Srinivasan’s article for the LRB is eye-popping, educational and insightful all at once.


Met averse

In his Galaxy Brain newsletter, Charlie Worzel does an outstanding job of writing thoughfully about new technology. So much of technology journalism is characterised by an apparently cool ‘snarky’ tone these days that it’s refreshing to read those who consider the issues.

In this edition, Charlie analyses his own fairly sceptical reaction to Facebook’s recent presentation of its ‘Metaverse’. Each section is interesting in its own way, including his quotation of Jason Koebler’s article setting out the less pleasant things happening on Facebookat the same time as the promotional presentation. Yet, Charlie’s final conclusion was most interesting to me, particularly coming from a technology journalist:

It is rational to be skeptical of new frontiers in innovation — not because you reflexively hate progress or think that the world ought to be frozen in amber here in 2021 (ew) — because we are drowning in evidence of what happens when we let people with narrow, hastily deployed visions of a technological future impose their visions on the rest of us.

I hope we can resist the urge to reduce conversations about the future of the internet down to Luddite vs. Expanding Brain Futurist. It’s a binary that serves few interests except of those who already have the power and means to create these new frontiers in their image. Flattening the conversation in this way almost ensures that our future technologies are designed by a select few — many of the same people that are in charge right now. We all know how that’s worked out.

It seems to me that his point about the need to resist false binary distinctions which serve only those who already have power is a lesson that extends far beyond technology writing.


Lunch with the FT: Brenda Hale

John Gapper’s interview with the former President of the Supreme Court is one of those rare interviews that made me buy the book it promoted (Hale’s autobiography).

We consult the menu. “I can’t bear soft-boiled eggs,” she remarks of the starter I am pondering, and I ask why.

“I just don’t like them. You don’t have to have rational reasons for your food likes and dislikes,” she exclaims.

The interview sparkles from start to finish, with a delicious combination of fearless insight, genuine emotion and intelligent discussion of some challenging legal issues of our time, from prorogation of Parliament to transgender rights.


QAplomb

When your publication starts articles with a dropped cap, how do you cope when the first letter of the article is a “Q” and its descender is messing up the page layout?

I can honestly say I’ve never given this a moment’s thought, but Ben Campbell has both recent experience and a wealth of historical precedent to share in his article for the LRB blog.

Very small problems that occur infrequently are doomed to remain unresolved.

But Ben Campbell has given it a go.


A once-quiet battle to replace the space station suddenly is red hot

I had a vague notion that the current space station was nearing the end of its life. Until I read Eric Berger’s Ars Technica article, I hadn’t really given any thought to the fact that its replacement—or replacements—will probably be private rather than public constructions.

Although nothing has been formalized, a general consensus has emerged among the international partners that the International Space Station can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030. But after that? NASA realizes it needs a succession plan.

Politicians and policymakers have started employing the spectre of the dreaded “g” word, saying NASA must avoid a “gap” in flying a low-Earth-orbit space station. This has become especially urgent with China’s recent, successful launch of its own Tiangong space station in April. In response to these concerns, NASA has hatched a plan. Recognizing the maturing US commercial space industry, NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” of one or more privately developed space stations.

This is one of those articles which is so interesting, that even some below-the-line comments are worth reading. I was particularly interested, for example, to understand why the plan was to build a whole new station rather than just replace modules on the current construction.

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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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