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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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30 things I learned in April 2020

1: In terms of the response of many governments to covid-19, David Runciman suggests that “For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.” I hope that’s not true. If there’s one lesson we always say we need to learn after every crisis, it’s that we need to do more planning for the “recovery phase”, the return to normality (even if that is a new normal). I hope the UK’s government is thinking on that.


2: Contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, it turns out that I am the kind of person who stands in a queue outside Asda. Covid-19 has done strange things to us all.


3: Doctors often spend a lot of time moaning about the involvement of politicians in political decisions about healthcare. I appreciated this article from Political Violence at a Glance for giving a brief but thoughtful answer to the question: “In pandemics, should the experts or the politicians be in charge?”


4: Dies Irae is quoted in a lot of films. Who knew that Gregorian chant is so relevant to modern cinema?


5: Teacher training in England is a mess.


6: Mario’s moustache is there for a reason.


7: There’s a great article in the April/May 2020 edition of Courier—not online as far as I can tell—about what a company learned from deciding to pay all their staff the same salary. It didn’t work out for them. Courier does these articles on failed business experiments really well: it’s great to see failure embraced and learning shared rather than just pretending everything works all the time.


8: “There is no sweeter moment than passing a middle-aged man in lycra on a carbon-fibre road bike when you’re riding a Dutch bike in a dress.”


9: According to a lecture by Dr Mary Rogers who manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance Programme, from all the SARS-CoV-2 viruses genetically sequenced to date from over twenty countries, there is only variation in 149 positions in a 29,000nt virus (i.e. very little mutation and variation).


10: “Whether one agrees with Trump’s policies or not, his administration has accomplished much of what it set out to.” I sometimes think that the collective outrage at Trump’s policies obscures the fact that he delivers on them. I would never have believed on 9 November 2016 that Trump would still be in office today, let alone that he would have actually delivered on his outlandish promises.


11: Bats have weird immune systems.


12: Stoking anger and resentment in difficult times still sadly brings gainful employment for some, according to Andrew Tuck: “At the park there’s a man lurking by the bushes. He’s got a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his arm. He’s here not to spot a rare bird in the trees but to try to catch out people sunbathing, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who does not live in their household (I know this because a few hours later I check the tabloid sites to confirm my suspicions and there are his pictures). He’s also got a series of people allegedly cycling too close to one another. But they are not what they seem to be. He’s simply used the lens to make it look like people are super close by shortening the field of vision. With a country on edge, it’s incredible why anyone would try to sow unease.”


13: In the context of the Prime Minister’s covid-19 diagnosis, “Donald Trump described Johnson as a man who ‘doesn’t give up’. Which is about as disrespectful a thing one could say in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have died of the virus, and presumably just couldn’t be arsed to hang around.”


14: Canine life coach is a career option.


15: I read a lot of library books and have never really worried about catching infections from them. But Gill Partington seems to think I should worry (and according to this article, Public Health England has guidance on cleaning library books, which was also news to me).


16: It’s easy to forget the unprecedented pace of social change over the last hundred years, which means it’s easy for a news report from a century ago to knock my socks off with its attitude to gender politics.


17: The Government’s latest covid-19 graphic feels strangely reminiscent of certain 1990s weekend shopping trips.

Staying@ 
for Britain 
All in, au together.Stay@

18: It’s “unlikely in the extreme” that covid-19 will delay November’s US presidential election.


19: The Economist reckons that “apps built using Apple’s and Google’s new [covid-19] protocol ought to focus on providing information to technologically empowered human contact-tracing teams, not on automating the whole process.” I agree; I’m not sure whether or not that’s PHE’s view.


20: Streaming funerals online raises interesting theological questions.


21: By dint of being in the second half of the decade, I don’t think I can describe myself as being in my “early thirties” anymore. In Misbehaving, Richard Thaler suggested that people can no longer be considered “promising” once they turn forty. To wit: I’m now a “promising thirty-something.”


22: According to this headline, the ideal moment to invite more people to attend NHS services is the moment of greatest pressure on those services.


23: Some pigeons have their rectums checked for incendiary devices.


24: Some days, I just despair.


25: Van Gogh’s isolation in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum influenced his art in interesting ways.


26: A Time-ly reminder that hospitals are only as strong as their domestic workforce.


27: In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that “style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.” Events over the last few days have made me think a lot about how consistent and accurate advice is crucial for outbreak control, but I had been thinking in terms of ethics and efficacy. Trust is, of course, especially important too: people don’t follow advice they don’t trust. It’s normally the sort of thing I bang on about a lot, so it’s interesting to reflect on why it was so far from my mind this weekend.


28: “The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.” (But but but…)


29: Today, I’ve had Adam Buxton’s take on the Quantum of Solace theme stuck in my head. It must be twelve years since I heard it on 6music, so I’ve no idea why my brain dragged that up!


30: I didn’t realise I was tired tonight until I woke up having falling asleep while reading in an armchair. I’m not sure this is correct behaviour for a promising thirty-something.

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What I’ve been reading this month

September has been a very busy month in the world of health protection, so I’ve been reading mostly light stuff to take my mind off things!


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris’s amusing autobiographical essays, this volume having been first published in 2000. These were easy to read, clever, and very funny: exactly what my brain and soul needed during troubled times!

The first half focused mainly on his youth, the second half more on a period he spent living in France. I found the latter half funnier and more satisfying, but all of it was delightful. Sedaris is someone I enjoy most in small doses, so I tried to limit myself to one essay a day—but with some in this collection being particularly short, that wasn’t always possible.

The essay about his French class desperately trying to explain Easter despite limited vocabulary was a particular highlight.


You by Caroline Kepnes

I picked this up because I fancied a light summer thriller sort of read, and it ticked that box perfectly. It was a first-person narrated story about a bookseller who was also a stalker. It had a wonderfully silly plot and Kepnes perfectly trod the line between thriller and comedy.

I’m not sure I’ll remember anything about this in a fortnight’s time, but it was great fun.


The Monocle Book of Gentle Living

Monocle is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve been a fan since the first issue of the magazine, which I came to via Tyler Brûlé, whose Financial Times Fast Lane column (latterly relaunched in a Monocle email newsletter format as Faster Lane) fascinated me for years. For a long time, I believed Tyler to be satirical caricature, and then only grew more interested when I realised he was real.

I’m a Monocle subscriber, but I don’t think I’m the target demographic: I’m never going to spend £435 on a pair of high-end curling boots, nor £750 on a shell jacket, nor £665 on a tweed cardigan, no matter how much they try and push them on readers of their journalism. But I do love reading and listening to their intelligent discussions of UK and world affairs, and I get a little thrill out of knowing that there are people out there who can write hundreds of words of copy on the colour temperature of the lighting on the latest European rolling stock.

So I bought the Monocle Guide to Gentler Living as a bit of COVID escapism, and it was perfect for that. It was essentially a long, themed edition of the magazine, with lavish photography and illustrations, stripped of display-ads and hard-bound. There was very little detail and substance to any of it, but it did sort of come together to make a coherent set of ideas about slowing down in life. (Think: three paragraphs on why train travel is better than flying, followed by one sentence on each of five “best rail journeys”, accompanied by lovely photographs; some blurb on giving up high powered jobs for “the better life”, with accompanying three-paragraph case studies; a section on fashion with a page dedicated to why one should own a t-shirt—any t-shirt—which consists of a stylish photo of a t-shirt and about fifty words of text).

It was light, fluffy, and totally escapist. I took virtually nothing from it, but really enjoyed it nonetheless. So much, in fact, that I’ve picked up another of the Monocle books in a recent sale.


Breath by James Nestor

This was a recently published popular science book about breathing. It was structured around a series of self-experiments conducted by the author. I found this to be a very engaging style, but it did mean that the book was heavy on anecdote and light on proper science. There was also a strong dose of self-help content.

There was a lot of stuff in here that felt like pseudoscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I found it so engaging that I enjoyed reading it. I even tried some of the described techniques out of curiosity (and got no real benefit).

However, my wife Wendy is a respiratory physician. My top tip to anyone in the same position is to be judicious about sharing passages—there was a fair amount of eye-rolling every time I did, though we did also occasionally descend into fits of giggles, so it was probably worth it.


The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

This was von Arnim’s 1909 book featuring the ridiculously self-important German Baron Otto Von Ottringel going on a caravanning holiday with his wife Edelgard in England. I was sent it in one of the London Review Book Boxes.

The Baron, who narrated, was quite a character: the holiday was to celebrate what he saw as his silver wedding anniversary. He had been widowered some years before and re-married, but felt that his twenty-five years of marriage ought to be marked nonetheless.

He was astoundingly sexist: “Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.”

There was humour in the book derived from the contrast between the Baron’s perception of himself and the evident level of regard in which others held him. There was also historical interest in the portrayal of British/German relations, given the world events just around the corner.

However, I found this a slog. The constant casual sexism and outmoded attitudes, while really the point of the piece, were quite wearing to modern eyes. It felt to me like the same points could have been made in a short story, rather than hammered home in a novel, but of course that’s partly because the satirical points being made are well accepted in modern society, which was not so at the time of publication.

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