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I don’t know Mrs Hinch

Sometimes, it takes distance to understand the culture that surrounds us.

I’m vaguely aware of the popularity of Mrs Hinch, who posts cleaning tips on social media. For many months, I assumed the lady in the Fariy Non-Bio advert was Mrs Hinch, but that turns out to be Vogue Williams, whose claim to fame has passed me by.

I didn’t know that Mrs Hinch posts exclusively on Instagram, nor that she now works for Procter & Gamble, nor that her early social media posts had transformed the fortunes of a cleaning product called ‘The Pink Stuff’. I had heard people casually mention ‘The Pink Stuff’ and assumed it was a reference to a Vanish product: ‘trust pink, forget stains’ and all that. I buy all the cleaning products for our house, and I’ve never seen a tub of it in real life.

I, therefore, learned a shocking amount about British culture from this New York Times article by David Segal. It’s an education.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , , , .

Digital empathy

Wendy and I were recently travelling back from Madrid via Amsterdam. The first leg of the journey was delayed, which meant we missed our connection. We knew there were no later connections that day and that we would be stranded overnight.

On arrival at Schiphol, we sought assistance from the ground staff. We walked past many self-service machines, assuming they couldn’t help us, and waited in a long queue. Once we reached the front, a staff member operated one of the self-service machines for us as if we were technologically incompetent. The self-service machine could issue a meal voucher, a hotel voucher, details of where to meet a shuttle to our hotel, and rebooking us on the next available flight. Human intervention from a staff member was, as it turned out, not required.

If I were in the same situation again, I’d use a machine independently rather than queue; of course, I would. This is great for the airline, saving them significant money in staffing costs.

But is ruthless efficiency the right approach here? A personable expression of sympathy and regret would seem to go a little further in building customer loyalty. It struck me as a little inconsistent that an airline that insists on using my name when handing me an in-flight meal doesn’t want to speak to me when things have gone wrong.


I recently bought a jacket online. It didn’t fit, even though it was labelled the same size as many garments I’ve bought from the same retailer.

I returned it to a branch of the chain from which I bought it. I was directed to use a self-service return machine. This was simplicity itself, aided by the chain using a unique identifying barcode for every garment sold. By scanning the tag, the machine could look up my details and process the return with a single confirmatory tap on the touchscreen. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the system again in the future.

Yet, this approach robbed the chain of the reason for my return and the opportunity for a linked sale: the next size up. It also removes any sense of empathy and any impression that the chain is doing anything to avoid similar situations in the future.

Reducing store staffing looks good for the bottom line, but I’m not sure it’s the right approach for the long run.


Amazon has been promoting delivery of orders by drone for years, yet it remains available only in a handful of locations. This New York Times article by David Streitfeld delves into how this works for people. I was particularly struck by the header video and the revelation that the drone drops packages from a height of twelve feet.

Amazon believes that this programme demonstrates a commitment to pushing the boundaries of technology in the service of its customers. I’m unsure that Amazon understands that the video of packages being dropped from such a height undermines any impression of care or concern about individual orders.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Gendering glassware

Says Becky Hughes, in the New York Times:

Stereotypes may be fading, but bartenders say many male customers are still uneasy with fancy glassware.

I can honestly say that I’ve never, in my entire life, given a second’s thought as to whether the cocktail I have been served is in a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ glass. Even as I glanced through the images in the article, I wasn’t really sure how to gender each of the featured containers.

It seems to have something to do with stems:

Jake Webster, a 24-year-old working in finance, used to succumb to the desire for a stemless glass. When he first started going to bars, he would order a beer or a whiskey on the rocks. Eventually, he grew tired of ordering drinks he didn’t like.

Yes, some people, it seems, order drinks they don’t enjoy because they consider the glassware to match their gender. For some people, the choice of drink is driven not even by their own preference for a particular type of glass, but by the preference of a fictional character they happen to like:

“It’s just a matter of what you see in TV and movies,” said Mr. [Max] Klymenko, who added, “I vividly remember Harvey Specter on ‘Suits’ always drinking from a short glass. To me, that seemed like something I should emulate.”

I recently bought some very short-stemmed wine glasses for use at home, as our longer-stemmed ones don’t fit in the dishwasher very easily. I’m now worried that this was an unintended imposition of my masculinity.

I have never ordered a cocktail based on a glass. I always order one of two things. One option is a cocktail I know I’ll enjoy (most often a negroni; a negroni sbagliato if you really insist on bubbles; maybe something with Aperol if you’ve got no Campari). The other is to order something different, something experimental: typically the house speciality. The glass isn’t a consideration.

But… I can’t get too high and mighty about this.

If ever I find myself in Starbucks, I do tend to order a flat white because they serve it in a nice cup and saucer rather than one of their unredeemably awful 3-inch-thick mugs. It’s nothing to do with gender, it’s just a preference for drinking out a vessel that seems designed for humans rather than animals.


The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Rabid Barbie discourse

In the final paragraph of an article about the recently released Barbie film that I happened across on The Verge, Charles Pulliam-Moore referred to “the rabid Barbie discourse”.

In my sheltered world, there has been very little “Barbie discourse” at all. The venerable New York Times published an opinion piece by Andi Zeisler:

For the past 64 years, Barbie has been at the center of countless debates about who women are, who they should be, how they look and what they want.

I mean, really? Has it?

I’m sure we’ve all seen occasional articles about Barbie’s freakish body proportions. There have been many articles over many years promotion the brand’s diversification of the doll line with new models representing different professions, skin tones, disabilities, and so forth. And humorous cultural references to the Barbie line are quite pervasive: see Malibu Stacy in The Simpsons. Even I indulged on this blog, albeit 17 years ago.

In the 1990s, the London Review of Books published an article on Barbie by Lorna Scott Fox, with possibly the most quintessentially LRB opening I’ve ever I’ve read:

‘Barbie can be anything you want her (yourself) to be!’ Thus the sales pitch for a plastic toy that in most people’s minds simply represents the essence of bimbo-ness. But what if the big hair and tacky costumes were actually vehicles of patriarchal and racial hegemony, while also enabling a potentially subversive network of reappropriative authorial narratives?

“But really,” I thought, “it’s just a toy. Surely, this can’t really spill over into ‘rabid Barbie discourse?’”

I underestimated, as a quick web search for ‘rabid Barbie discourse’ revealed. The top result—from the website of a newspaper that has been publishing for more than two centuries—was a news article using words like ‘enraged’, ‘insane’, ‘woke’, ‘wild’, ‘bonanza’, ‘heaven’, ‘banned’, ‘feminist’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘cynical’ in discussion of a promotional popcorn container. The container was pictured no less than fifteen times in the article.

And honestly: that’s where I realised that this ‘rabid discourse’ was—like anything rabid—best avoided.


The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , , .

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.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Some thoughts on print newspapers

When people who otherwise know me and Wendy very well come round to our house, they not infrequently express surprise at newspapers lying around the place. But, whatever others might think, both Wendy and I like a print newspaper. For both of us, the serendipity of newsprint is inspiring: we often find our views challenged by a newspaper presenting something that we hadn’t previously considered, or highlighting an alternative angle on something we thought we knew. This is the newspaper playing the role of an anti-Facebook: not presenting us with stuff we are likely to like, but instead presenting us with stuff which is well outside our field of knowledge and experience.

On top of this, there happens to be a large overlap in the Venn diagram of good journalists and journalists employed by print news organisations. So as well as reading print newspapers, I also subscribe to a number of digital versions of newspapers from the UK and the USA, often to follow specific journalists. There are some journalists whose byline on an article means it’s worth reading, even if it’s about something I would never normally be interested in: Will Storr is an example. There are some journalists who are so expert and well-connected in their field that their byline means an article will provide new insight into a topic: Tim Shipman is an example. There are some journalists who understand the value of explaining the significance of a story, don’t cry wolf, and aren’t afraid to explain that the frontpage splash is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things: Matt Chorley is an example. And, at the other end of the spectrum, one quickly gets to know the bylines to avoid, the journalists who will almost certainly have failed to understand the material they are covered, whose work will almost inevitably contain at least one major error of fact: it seems rude to give an example.

Another advantage of traditional print is that it is slow. Breaking news frequently demands our attention but is rarely worthy of it. The implications of news are rarely understood at the moment it breaks, not least as so little is generally known. Speculation is often worse than unhelpful, separating fact from fiction is rarely possible in the moment, and vacuous commentary often precedes facts. Farhad Manjoo’s article for the New York Times this week discussed relying solely on print newspapers for news and was particularly clear on this. Delayed Gratification is even better than newspapers for this: it presents news on a three-month delay, allowing much fuller analysis and discussion than anyone could hope to achieve in the first three minutes.

Of course, both me and Wendy also regularly read news online and on our phones. We don’t exclusively read newspapers. But I think, for both of us, they form an important part of our news ‘diet’.

I was set thinking about all of this after seeing a data story by Kirby Swales in April’s Prospect. Swales’s suggestion is that the BBC News website has essentially cannibalised the tabloid newspaper market (perhaps the reason the BBC feels it necessary to write full articles on a reality star’s Instagram post and ‘listicles’ about Twitter storms). To me, the biggest surprise in that data is that less than half the adult population of the UK regularly reads news online.

I don’t really have a point to make in this post. I suppose I’m just musing without conclusion that I like newspapers, their circulation is falling, and with ever-more news available online, the proportion of people engaging with it is really quite small. Maybe society is disengaging from journalism. Or maybe habits are changing in less dramatic ways. I don’t know.


The picture at the top is from Jeff Eaton on Flickr and is used here under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , , , , , , .

Weekend read: The post-hope politics of House of Cards

I have enjoyed both series of Netflix‘s remake of House of Cards. I’d argue that the second series was better than the first, but both are better than almost anything else I’ve seen on TV in recent years.

If you, too, enjoyed the series, you’ll likely also enjoy Adam Sternbergh’s discussion of the show, its philosophy, and how it came to be. It was published in the New York Times Magazine. And if you are not already a fan, I’d probably advise watching the first series before reading, as it’s laden with spoilers.



This post is sponsored by House of Cards on Amazon

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , , , .

2D: Apple (again)

Published a fortnight ago, my last 2D post offered two articles about technology giant Apple. With an originality rarely surpassed by this blog, today’s 2D post is about… Apple.

Having come across two more brilliant articles about the company in the last couple of weeks, I didn’t want to deny you the pleasure of reading them simply because I’ve done something similar recently.

My first selection today is this recent Guardian article by their technology editor Charles Arthur. He makes the point that while the Apple Maps app is often a source of ridicule, within the US at least it appears to be winning the long-game, with Google Maps losing millions of users to Apple’s version. It’s one of those interesting articles that explains why the cultural narrative around a certain story borders on counter-factual.

My second selection is this article from The New York Times published last month, and written by Fred Vogelstein. It’s been pretty widely shared, but I only got round to reading it last week. It’s a remarkable account of the development of the iPhone, and – perhaps most interestingly – the development of the iPhone’s launch announcement, and how buggy the iPhone was at the point it was announced. It’s a remarkable tale.

Next time round, I promise you something that’s not Apple…!

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!

This post was filed under: 2D, , , , , .

2D: Working late

My last 2D feature was on being late… and this one continues the theme of “lateness”. I hope you won’t conclude that I’m obsessed!

My first recommended read on the topic is “Oh, stop your whining!” by Jean Adams on the Fuse Open Science Blog. Unlike my usual 2D selections, it’s not a long article. But Jean’s reflection on her own changing perceptions around people’s work:life balances made me reflect on my attitude.

I think, like many people, this is something I struggle with to some extent. I don’t feel I overwork (at least not very often), yet I frequently stay in the office until late into the evening or arrive early in the morning, I frequently read and respond to work emails at weekends and on holidays, and struggle to say “no” to anyone offering extra work.

I don’t expect others to do the same. In fact, one of the pleasures of catching up with work out of hours is the lack of distraction, and the fact that I can reply to emails without them bouncing straight back. If everyone did the same, it would be far less satisfying!

Occasionally, I’m given cause to reflect. I recently got annoyed at someone who, when realising I was on holiday, refused to continue an email conversation. When someone called my view of time off “abstemious” – as a compliment, I think – it played on my mind. And when I saw Jean’s post, I wondered again about my work:life balance.

I rationalised, as I always do, that if I’m happy then the balance is good. But perhaps an occasional pause for reflection on the topic is no bad thing.

My other selected article on this topic looks at working “late” from a slightly different perspective: in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse writes “Working late, by choice or not” about those working beyond the typical retirement age in the United States.

I was particularly struck by the story of Dr Rafael Garza, who is still doing ward rounds at the age of 87… having moved to a new specialty at the age of 74. I suppose that if I’ve still got (at least) sixty years to go in my present career, I’ve got plenty of time to work out the best work:life balance…!

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!

This post was filed under: 2D, , , , .




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