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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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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 2,427th 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 2,257th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , , , .




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