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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”.


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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2D: iPhone & Android

iOS and Android

Even as someone who has recently switched from iPhone to Android, there are few things in life that are as tiresome as listening to or reading the constant bickering between Apple and Android “fanboys”. It might seem, therefore, that this is an odd choice for a 2D post – but, in fact, there are some well-written and well-argued posts from reasonable people on both sides.

First, here’s a Businessweek article by Mathew Ingram explaining why he is considering making the same leap as me, and ditching the iPhone for an Android device. He concludes by saying

Apple has great design, but it restricts your choice in all kinds of ways. I have been seeing those restrictive bars more and more, despite all the beautiful flowers.

On the other hand, Colin Walker of BetaNews has done the opposite, and leapt from Android to iPhone. He too makes some excellent points, though of course reaches the opposite conclusion:

My disillusionment with Android has been growing and the move has been a long time coming; it will not be one I regret in a hurry.

It’s great to have a couple of well-written, non-obsessive, rationale contributions to a long-running and often heated debate.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them! The photo at the top of this post was posted to Flickr by Mike Lau and has been modified and used under Creative Commons Licence.

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Why I switched from BlackBerry to iPhone

A couple of days ago, I wrote about my switch from PC to Mac, and said I’d also explain how I’d come to switch form BlackBerry to iPhone. So here I go…

Vodafone Logo

Vodafone Logo

Back in December 2008, I was using a Nokia 6110 Navigator, and felt I needed an upgrade to something a little more modern and useful – so I started looking. I decided that I needed a true smartphone, and felt that I probably wanted something on the Vodafone network as I knew them and liked them.

That ruled the iPhone out. But I’d decided I didn’t really want one of those anyway – I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of a touch screen, and heck, this was a phone that couldn’t handle MMS or cut-and-paste. In many ways, it would be a downgrade.

However, I was attracted by the iPhone’s big screen… and also by the idea of a BlackBerry, which I’d heard were ‘rock solid’ for email – and email was one of the big things I wanted my new phone to do better. So I looked at the newly released BlackBerry Storm, and quickly came to love it.

I’d read all the negative reviews, but playing with it repeatedly in-store reassured me that it was right for me. The ‘click’ of the screen helped me to overcome my fears about using a touchscreen, and the reputation for rock-solid email convinced me further.

In March 2009, as I blogged at the time, I upgraded.

BlackBerry Storm

BlackBerry Storm

And I loved it. It connected with most of my email accounts out of the box (with the exception of my NHSmail account, which I never anticipated it connecting to), and it worked exactly as I wanted it to. The SurePress screen was a massive hit. The battery life wasn’t great, but I’d planned for that and bought a charging dock to keep next to my bed, and used the phone as my alarm clock. The perfect solution.

But over the next 12 months, things began to niggle me. The Storm crashed quite regularly – perhaps once a day, a battery-pull would be necessary to reboot the device to get it working again. And rebooting a Storm is not exactly an instantaneous process. Syncing the phone over-the-air worked brilliantly for my Calendar and Contacts, but when I wanted to connect to my PC to transfer photos from the device, it was more than a little laborious.

As time went on, I simply became more and more frustrated with the device, and had my mind set on a high-end QWERTY BlackBerry as my next phone of choice.

But then, I discovered Mac. I bought my MacBook Pro, and started playing with the iPhones in the Apple Store. I discovered that my previous complaints about the iPhone had largely been fixed, and that typing on a touch-screen was actually quite easy. The seamless syncing between my new MacBook and the iPhone also seemed attractive. The seeds were inevitably planted.

Whilst particularly frustrated with my Storm one day, I vented my anger through twitter, citing my frustration with the Storm and desire for an iPhone. Having seen my Tweet, in a show of exemplary customer service, Vodafone called me, and within the week I had a shiny new iPhone 3GS (and, as it happens, Vodafone also reduced my monthly contract cost).

And, much like the switch from PC to Mac, it wasn’t until I started using it that I realised what I had been missing.

iPhone 3GS

iPhone 3GS

The iPhone just works in a way that the BlackBerry didn’t. As per the comment on my previous post, the iPhone is more transparent to the task than the BlackBerry could ever hope to have been.

The App Store makes the iPhone sing in a way that the App World could never do for the BlackBerry. The App Store experience is seamless, the App World experience, well, isn’t, to say the least.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, since the release of iOS4, the iPhone connects to all of my email accounts – including NHSmail – without a hitch. Surprisingly, I think the iPhone has actually surpassed the BlackBerry for email solidity.

The MacBook syncing is as straight-forward as I’d hoped, and typing is as easy as it seemed in the shop. And I’ve never had to perform any equivalent to the constant battery-pulls I had to endure with the Storm.

Once again, Apple has won me over simply through offering the better user experience. I can’t quite say that I don’t miss anything from the Storm, but there is only one thing that I miss – the little notification LED on the top of the device. But then, I’d had to hack that with BeBuzz to make it useful to me. All-in-all, there’s no question in my mind – I prefer the iPhone.

Also, Vodafone has amazed me through their exceptional level of customer service – a level of service which has improved immeasurably from a couple of years ago to become truly First Class. I was impressed when they upgraded me to the Storm, but this time even more so – picking up on a single tweet and responding to it in such a supra-satisfactory way is truly impressive of any company, and has certainly guaranteed my custom for many more years to come.

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