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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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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve made it through another eleven books this month. I only aim to read about a book a week, but quite a few of these were rather short!


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

In the couple of years since it was published, Laura Spinney’s history of the 1918 influenza pandemic has been recommended to me by more health protection colleagues than any other book.

Spinney did a great job of weaving together, virology, public health, history and sociology to create a genuinely thrilling volume on a subject that is often treated as a little dry. Spinney brought it to life while also comprehensively covering her brief, and used a light and engaging touch as well as lots anecdotes to illustrate larger points.

It took me a little longer to get through this than my enthusiasm for the book would imply, but only because my days have been filled with coronavirus work lately, and reading about something similar for pleasure seemed a bit masochistic!


A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I picked this up because my Goodreads friend Richard Smith called it “marvellous” and it sounded right up my street. I agree with his assessment.

In this book, Bulgakov describes the experience of being newly qualified and the sole doctor attached to a rural hospital in Russia in 1917. I may have started as a junior doctor (in Newcastle upon Tyne) some 91 years later than Bulgakov (and, for that matter, 32 years after Richard—sorry!) but the stories resonated.

The terror and reading up before shifts; the heart-in-mouth adrenaline rush as the DECT phone rings (or the nurse knocks on the doctor’s bedroom door in Bulgakov’s case!); the conspiratorial performance of maintaining the fiction for patients that the doctor knows exactly what they’re doing, even while being gently steered by the nurses. Even the twin comfort and dread brought by heavy snow felt familiar—comfort as fewer patients will turn up and I might have chance to think, but dread as I have to cope with the weather too.

There was an engaging emotional range to the book, from the amusing and absurd to the tragic. I’m fortunate not to have seen any colleagues become addicted to controlled drugs, and count myself very lucky given the statistics not to have had close experience of doctor colleagues ending their own lives… or murdering healthy patients.

The first mention of Leopold Leopoldovitch in the book reminded me that I watched the TV adaptation of this starring Jon Hamm, Daniel Radcliffe and the scene-stealing Vicki Pepperdine in 2012. I remember enjoying it, but don’t remember enough of the content to have any idea of how closely it followed the book.

The version I read was the 1975 translation by Michael Glenny: other (newer) English translations are available, but it’s hard to imagine how they could be any better!


Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

My parents bought me this for Christmas… at my request. It wasn’t a unfestive forced selection, but rather a book I’d wanted to read because the reviews were so good.

Higginbotham gave a brilliantly written and researched account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. I found it gripping.

Higginbotham managed not only to explain nuclear physics in a way that I could understand, his characterisations of the key figures in the story were excellent. It’s rare to read someone who is this good at writing about complex science and the human aspect of a story.

Thoroughly recommended.


Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I feel sorry for the person who spent ages on the cover design for this book, but this dust-cover-less copy is what the library supplied, and so that’s the picture I’m sticking with. There’s no photoshopping to meet literary beauty standards here!

Because Internet was a study of informal, casual written English, with a particular focus on the internet since, McCulloch argued, the advent of the internet has allowed academics to study informal writing extensively. Prior to the internet, informal writing was generally private (diaries, letters, shopping lists) whereas it is now commonly public (forum posts, tweets, blog posts).

To me, that insight alone was worth the effort of reading this book. I have never pondered the extent to which analyses of written English have been informed only by formal written English, and I’ve never before really thought about how the present generation is the first to publicly express itself in informal English. There’s a lot of food for thought in that.

But McCulloch had much more besides in this volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes, books are so insightful as to explain to the reader why the reader does things which just seem automatic: this is one of those books.

McCulloch managed that very difficult feat of marrying rigorous academic analysis with clear and accessible explanations, a lightness of touch, levity and wit. I thought this book was great.


Mostly Hero by Anna Burns

While this was first published in 2014, the copy I picked up was newer: a part of the 2019 extension to the Faber Stories series I read last year. This volume somewhat stretched the bounds of definition of “short story”: at 127 pages, this was really a novella rather than a short story, and the cover price was consequently higher than the rest of the (much slimmer) volumes in the series.

All of that said, I thought this was a very clever book which I enjoyed reading. Burns presented a sort of literary take on comic book superhero stories, which I’m almost tempted to call “spoof”: it riffed to great effect on common comic book tropes, but Burns also gave the story real depth and meaning. Mostly Hero was inventive and played with language in creative and interesting ways.

At heart, it was a love story featuring a character named “hero” and one named “femme fatale”, but it ranged much wider than that single genre despite its short length. Burns had interesting things to say on societal expectations, gender and the nature of good and evil, all of which were explored under the cover of the absurd cartoonish world she created.


Moral Essays: Volume II by Seneca

When I read the first volume of Seneca’s moral essays translated by John W Basore in 2018, I was completely blown away and read the whole thing pretty quickly.

I’ve read this second volume a section at a time over a much longer period, and don’t think I got quite as much out of it as with the ‘total immersion’ approach of the first volume. The slightly dated language of Basore’s 1932 translation takes some getting used to. The print quality in some parts of my copy wasn’t great, which took me out of the moment a few times.

All of that said, this was still brilliant, and doesn’t feel like it was written millennia ago.


Grandeur and Greed by Giles Smith

Take a journalist best known for writing columns about sport and music, send him to review five of Europe’s great art galleries, and Grandeur and Greed is the result.

In this short volume published in 2019, Smith reviews The Louvre, The Prado, The Rijksmuseum, The Uffizi and The National Gallery. Each enjoys an off beat and lighthearted review from someone with a casual interest in art. Smith even reviews the cafes. I found this short, light, funny and insightful.

I think it’s the other that the physical format of the book was, however, poor: it is very flimsy, and the binding means that a large central portion of the impressive double-page photography is lost in the gutter. Smith’s reviews were originally published online, and I’m not sure that enough thought has been given to the transfer to the physical page.


I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux

This was a moving account of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, as the latter develops and ultimately dies from Alzheimer’s disease. I read the translation by Tanja Leslie.

Reading this book made me reflect that it probably shocks less today than it did when it was published some 23 years ago. Over the last couple of decades, I think societal awareness and understanding of dementia illnesses has increased markedly over what is really quite a short period of time. I think some of the exposition about the illness would be handled differently today.

Nevertheless, this remains a powerful emotional account.


Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

This newly-released novel was set in a three-hour period during which a school in Somerset was attacked by shooters who also had explosive devices. The book was set in the present day and had a contemporary feel, with Lupton weaving in many of the touchstone issues in the social and political debates of our time (Brexit, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, etc). There were also a few decent plot twists along the way.

I enjoyed this, but I felt slightly removed from the action: I felt more of an observer. I think this was partly because some of the plot stretched credibility (would a British rolling news channel really interview someone caught up in this while they were in hiding in the school?) and partly because of the heavy-handed and slightly tiresome way Lupton drew comparisons between her plot and Shakespeare.


Defeated by Brexit by Chris Cook

In this short 2019 book, Chris cook gave a good insight into the Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Unfortunately, his analysis ended at a point in time which seems odd in retrospect (a few weeks before Theresa May’s resignation). The text was also a bit too long for an overview, and a little too short to really get stuck into the detail. I think there are probably better books on this topic.

This was published by the same house as the Giles Smith book, and was similarly flimsy.


Dreamerika! by Alan Burns

This 1972 surrealist fantasy was my least favourite book of the month my some considerable distance. I’ve no doubt that Dreamerika! has artistic merit, and it was certainly very clever, but the collage style of cut-out headlines interspersed with paragraphs of discontinuous text was just not my kind of thing.

This was recommended by the London Review Book Shop, and I’m glad I tried it, but it made me realise that I need a good bit of prose to get stuck into a book.

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