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Five links worth clicking

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

The UK faces an energy crisis. Could nuclear play a vital role?

In this article for the FT Weekend, Jonathan Ford provides some great analysis and colour around the decommissioning of end-of-life nuclear power plants and the function of the Sellafield site in dealing with nuclear waste.

Everyone knows that midday desert sun can be harmful if one lies in it without protection. And everyone knows that moonlight is essentially harmless. Yet, moonlight and sunshine are made up of the same photons. The former is simply harmless because it is 400,000 times less bright than sunshine. Nuclear radiation can be like sunlight, and it can be like moonlight.

When I think of decommissioning a nuclear power plant, I think of dealing with prodigious quantities of radiation. I’ve never thought about the compounding effect of radiation on the other hazardous materials on site, such as asbestos: and, of course, the vintage of the estate being decommissioned means there’s plenty of that around.

Last year, I read Lorna Arnold’s investigation into the Windscale fire of 1957 which the Ford mentions at the start of this article. If you like Ford’s article, you might also like Arnold’s book.

And if you wonder what’s driving up energy prices, James Meek’s recent article in the LRB is revealing.

File not found

This fascinating article for The Verge by Monica Chin discusses the fact that younger people are unfamiliar with both the concept of directory filing in computing and the underlying metaphors the system represents. This is presenting particular problems for students studying STEM subjects where they need to use command-line interfaces, which are reliant on exact descriptions of file locations.

Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganised. I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.

This rings true in my life, too. I’m the youngest of four consultants in our team at work, and the only one who doesn’t have folders in which to file emails. I rely entirely on search to find things, having made the shift after reading evidence that this method was far more efficient. Though I’ll confess that I recently moved from storing everything in Outlook’s ‘Deleted Items’ to storing everything in a gigantic ‘Archive’ folder out of fear that some system administrator might commit the heinous crime of deleting my ‘Deleted Items’.

However, perhaps indicative of my ‘in-between’ age, I still use structured directories for files, mostly because the search functions in the file storage systems I use are pretty poor. On Apple systems, I do use tags to cross-cut my directory structure (with, for example, a tag called ‘Work – needs updating’ and another called ‘Work – quick reference’) but I’m mostly a file-structure kind of person.

I wonder if this is something me and my colleagues need to rethink. We have an intricately structured shared drive at work, and yet I note that many of my (mostly younger) colleagues have desktops resembling that described by Peter Plavchan in the above quotation. Maybe we need a collective system that’s more searchable and less navigable. Though, of course, the latter is the problem: a ‘big bucket’ approach to file management isn’t great for discovery, or for going back years later to locate something vaguely recollected which was created by someone who has since left the organisation.

I’m very forgetful. I can lead big projects and, within a year, forget that I’ve done them. If I regularly had to encounter an email directory structure that referenced the project, maybe I’d retain the knowledge for longer. Perhaps a search-based approach is poorer for mental retention.

Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

This Wallpaper article by Harriet Lloyd-Smith may essentially be advertorial for a recently published photo book, but oh my it features some beautiful photographs of dilapidated cinemas by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

There’s beauty in the flaking paint, opulence in the rows of tattered crushed-velvet seats, stories retained in the defunct equipment and abandoned concession stands. Laughs, tears, screams and gasps live on in the crumbling cornices.

I’ve long been a bit of a sucker for this kind of photography. There’s something about the way it reminds me that “this too shall pass” that I find oddly comforting. Nothing lasts forever.

A piano down a mine

This Van piece by Hugh Morris is an entertaining discussion of comedy based on classical music: the sort of stuff Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey get up to.

The idea of good humor punching up is key. But mocking the conventions of a musical culture which is fundamentally a bit silly—people dress up in old-fashioned outfits to play music from ages ago for a group of people sitting in complete silence—comes with a warning. While it’s easy to mock classical music’s foibles, those gags can easily be perceived as jibes or slights, which can then underpin whole ecosystems’ oddly negative behaviors.

This is one to click on when you’ve time to click through and watch the various cited routines, rather than just as something to read. Some of them were new to me, and others I was amused by revisiting. It also brought this delightfully silly story about an error in the Welsh Government’s coronavirus guidance to my attention for the first time.

For my money, the article could have been rounded out with at least a passing mention of Mozart in the Jungle as a recent(ish) TV dramedy in this arena which I very much enjoyed. What other series would invite Lang Lang for a cameo and overdub him with Daft Punk—to brilliant effect?

Bo Burnham: Inside

This Netflix lockdown special by musical comedian Bo Burnham is excellent. It was written, directed and filmed solely by Burnham in a room of his house, which seems an extraordinary achievement.

But still more interesting is how Burnham brings his occasionally dark sense of humour to the experience of lockdown life, and openly and frankly discusses the mental health aspects (including his own pre-lockdown mental health problems). This turns his comedy special into something quite moving, and surprising insightful, as well as very funny.

I know Bo Burnham isn’t for everyone, and indeed he’s never really made much impact on this side of the Atlantic, but I think this comedy special is well worth watching.

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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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30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”

2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.

3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.

4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.

5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.

6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.

7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.

8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:

9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.

10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.

11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”

12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.

13: What’s the difference between music and language?

14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”

15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.

16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.

17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.

18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”

19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.

20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.

21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”

22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.

23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.

24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?

25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.

26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”

27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.

28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.

29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.

30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

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