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31 things I learned in October 2020

1: I learned about Usutu virus.


2: Donald Trump, who only allows people who have tested negative for covid-19 to be in close proximity, has tested positive for covid-19, underlining the fallacy of relying on other people’s negative test results as the sole protective measure against infection. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson presses on with his moonshot project to provide mass testing so that we can all rely on other people’s negative test results as the sole protective measure against infection. A negative test is only as good as the testing technology—and even if the technology were magically perfect, it still only reflects the moment the test was taken.


3: I’m no fan of spiders (to say the least), but even I found this short article about the venom of funnel web spiders surprising and interesting. The thesis is that the venom is only deadly because it’s not had enough time not to be.


4: Nadia’s story.


5: “It wasn’t only independence-minded Scots who noticed that their country was handling its own coronavirus crisis confidently and – after some horrible early mistakes, principally to do with care homes – more effectively than England. Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, confirmed the growing recognition that decisions made in England were made for England, and that ‘home nations’ could and should stand on their own feet (‘we now have a three-nation approach from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’). Meanwhile, back in London, nobody tried to claim: ‘We are all in this together’ – the slogan used in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and defaced by the monstrous unfairnesses of ‘austerity’. This moment will pass. Covid-19 will gradually disappear from newspaper front pages, and Johnson will return to being a ‘British’ prime minister. And yet the union will never be the same again. A saucy genie of empowerment has escaped from the bottle.”


6: “Shaming is a major and necessary form of social control in any public health emergency. We shame people who cough without covering their mouths or who do not wear masks or do not wear condoms – and we should.” I’m not entirely sure I agree, but this provoked some thoughts.


7: Some people are much braver than me when it comes to getting involved in home renovations!


8: “There appears to be a very deliberate policy to break things up and create an instability in the system. They are doing things they don’t need to do to effect the changes they want. I don’t think it’s all 4D chess plotted out, some of it is instinctive — how they’re treating people in particular. They don’t really care about the consequences or relish them. There is an awful lot of chaos and short-termism. It’s about who they trust and who is on side — it’s a very Trumpian approach.”


9: “Mandela used to tell people a little parable. Imagine that the sun and the wind are contending to see who can get a traveller to take off his blanket. The wind blows hard, aggressively. But the traveller only pulls the blanket tighter around him. Then the sun starts to shine, first gently, and then more intensely. The traveller relaxes his blanket, and eventually he takes it off. So that, he said, is how a leader has to operate: forget about the strike-back mentality, and forge a future of warmth and partnership.”

The combination of extreme pressure and tiredness which characterises the experience of most people in public health at the moment means that warranted frustration—and perhaps grief—is often expressed in a manner that looks a lot like anger. This article helped me to reflect on and unpick some of the true underlying emotions, which aren’t really anger at all… in most cases.


10: “In two years, thousands of tourists and space enthusiasts could be gathering in the far north of Scotland to watch an unlikely event, the inaugural flight of a rocket blasting off from a peat bog usually grazed by deer and sheep.” Only a year away by the time this post is published… or not.


11: “Fellow feeling is the greatest of all human attributes. And even though it is lacking in the world’s most powerful human, and in his desire to be exceptional he does not seek to become the wounded people of his country, we can still spare a thought for his condition with benevolent sympathy — even if we then take time to criticise him properly too.”


12: “The Prime Minister has today set out how the government will further simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three tiered system of local covid Alert Levels in England” and it’s time for another bold and ill-advised prediction from me. Ill-advised because by the time this is published, you’ll know if it’s come true, and I might look like an idiot.

The plan which the Government has announced is scientifically illiterate. Tiers appear to be allocated mostly on the basis of the number of cases in a given area, yet the speed of spread is far more important. An area which has only 10 cases today will have nearly 500 cases within six weeks if the case numbers are growing by 10% per day. An area which has 100 cases today will have only fewer than 250 cases within six weeks if case numbers are growing by only 2% per day.

Restricting only areas with high case numbers is folly. The oft-repeated argument that it’s “unfair” to impose restrictions on areas with low proportions of the population infected is based on a misunderstanding of mathematics.

The fact that the measures at each tier are only aimed at slowing the spread, and won’t be introduced until an area has a high number of cases—regardless of the speed of spread—means that I’m certain we’ll end up with an England-wide lockdown within weeks. It’ll be “stay at home” again, but with schools allowed to remain open this time. I think the Government will be slow to admit the error of the Tier system, so we may well see a new Tier 4 (local “stay at home”) unveiled before then.

And while I’m on a roll… basing restrictions on incident cases is acting far too late. The impact of restrictions takes at least an incubation period to come into effect. Introducing restrictions only when the case numbers are causing the NHS to reach breaking point is damning services to fail. I think Nightingale Hospitals will be taking patients within the month. Probably not covid patients, because that never made much sense as a strategy, but non-covid patients will be admitted to free up beds for the covid surge.


13: “This is the moment where we enter the next phase. It’s going to be really hard to stomach, it’s going to go on for some time, and if people don’t follow the rules then we may have to go further still. People in all areas of the country should be under no illusion, we are back to where we were in March, this is going to be shit and it may get shitter yet.”


14: Like an Italian schoolboy, I’ve learned about Giacomo Leopardi. I think he had exactly the opposite perspective to me on many things.


15: “You should all be writing about the PPE shortage. About a too-late response from a useless and distracted government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything. Whose only thought about state was how to dismantle it as fast as possible. Who thought it was all going to be such a blast, being in power, making lots of money for themselves and their pals.

“You should be writing about how many people have died and are going to die in this country because of this government’s rank carelessness. They’re saying twenty thousand deaths will be good. Good!

“Get them writing. About how the hedgefunders have made billions already out of what’s happening. Billions going into their accounts from other people’s losses, while nurses and doctors and cleaners have to wear binliners. Binliners. A government treating them like rubbish. The NHS is not happy to let people die. That’s the difference between them and this government, happy to count the heads of their so-called herd, like we’re cattle, like they think they own us and have the right to send thousands of us to slaughter to keep the money coming in. Peevish. Too focused on their infantile Brexit obsession to accept offers of help and equipment from our neighbours.

“Write about how the people who’ve never been properly valued are all holding this country together. The health workers and the everydayers, the deliverers, the postmen and women, the people working the factories, the supermarkets, the ones holding all our lives in their hands. Write about that. The mighty Etonians brought low one more time and the meek revealed as the real might after all.”


16: “Everyone knows what you do in the bathroom, but you still close the door. In other words, your info may not be a secret, but it should remain private” by default.


17: Readwise reminded me of this lesson from a book I read some years ago: “Can you assess the danger a criminal poses by examining only what he does on an ordinary day? Can we understand health without considering wild diseases and epidemics? Indeed the normal is often irrelevant. Almost everything in social life is produced by rare but consequential shocks and jumps.”


18: I recently finished reading Ali Smith’s Summer, the extraordinary finale to her seasonal quartet. This article in the London Review of Books made me realise how much more there is to the whole series than I derived on my casual read. Maybe a series to revisit at some point.


19: I’m distinctly average.


20: “Johnson used his press conference on 9 September to dangle some hopeful news. The government, he revealed, had a plan for mass testing – a “moonshot” attempt to make quick, simple tests available at scale by next year.

“As more details of the “moonshot” emerged, the more absurd it seemed. Leaked documents revealed the plan to roll out between 6-10 million rapid tests per day at a cost of £100bn – a figure so high that some sceptics thought it was a typo.

“Roche, one company manufacturing the tests, estimated in early September that it would be able to make 80 million units a month only by the end of the year. Even then, the company’s entire global monthly manufacturing capacity would serve the UK’s moonshot for less than a fortnight.

“The plans have little basis in reality. If experience is any guide, the idea that this government could competently keep track of millions more test results every day is little short of farcical.”


21: With rumination, people can make very precisely cutting comments: “On the very rare occasion Linda Barker is on television now, when I do see her, she’s still very bouncy, and I just don’t think she earned the bounce.”


22: I learned about a famous photograph of the corium “elephant’s foot” at Chernobyl.


23: There are times when, even after all this time, Trump’s attacks on the fundamentals of democracy retain the power to shock: “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and…we’ll have a very peaceful. There won’t be a transfer. Frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”


24: Less than half of the population knows the three cardinal symptoms of covid-19 infection, and fewer than a fifth of those advised to self-isolate actually follow the rules according to the Covid-19 Rapid Survey of Adherence to Interventions and Responses study. I’m surprised more by the former than the latter: for many, a lack of support makes full self-isolation a unviable, and “best efforts” are worthwhile anyway.


25: The Government chose to outsource NHS Test and Trace to Serco, who then themselves outsourced it to many other companies. There is a strong suspicion that the Government does not know even how many companies are now involved, let alone who they are.

According to Bernard Jenkin, who somehow manages to avoid mentioning outsourcing or any private company in his analysis, “there is a spaghetti of command and control at the top, which is incapable of coherent analysis, assessment, planning and delivery.”

One of the dominant narratives about the UK Government response to covid-19 is that the UK was well prepared, but for the “wrong kind of pandemic”.

A command and control structure is required for any pandemic: indeed, it’s probably the keystone. The plan wasn’t for “spaghetti”. The plan wasn’t for the Government to set up a Joint Biosecurity Centre nor a Covid Task Force nor to abolish the single national organisation providing health protection expertise.

Spaghetti doesn’t just appear. It doesn’t grow on trees. Ignoring the long-standing plan, outsourcing to countless private companies, creating public organisations on the fly, abolishing established players half way through, and sprinkling people with no relevant qualifications or expertise at the top; it all adds up to a Government spaghetti recipe of which even Nigella would be proud.


26: “In 40 years of reporting and broadcasting about politics, daily and most weekends, I’ve never known a time when rational, mature leadership has been more needed and yet been so wretchedly absent. Is it too much to ask our leaders to treat people as adults, and to grow up themselves?

Of course, it is possible that this crisis might have been handled worse. But, if I’m being perfectly honest, I can’t immediately see how that might have been accomplished.”


27: HM Government’s top-line advice for people who are in a large indoor shopping centre and feel that they have symptoms of covid-19 appears to be to whip out one’s mobile and book a test—not to immediately self-isolate. This is a surprising approach to controlling spread of a respiratory virus.


28: “For London, 2020 was just about the worst possible time to confront a global pandemic. The UK, which has always prided itself on being one of the most stable democracies in the world, was already uncertain about its future with an untested new government and a prime minister who many even in his own party considered ill qualified for the job. Despite all his bluster and attempts at Churchillian rhetoric, Boris Johnson has done nothing to dispel those doubts. Far from offering decisive, effective leadership, he and his ministers and advisors have spread confusion and eroded public trust – with disastrous consequences.”


29: “When you tell Chrome to wipe private data about you, it spares two websites from the purge: Google and YouTube.”


30: “We’re all mired in vague unarticulated anxiety right now, and tidying provides you with a strong foundation to ask questions of yourself: ‘What’s important to me right now? How do I want to live?’” I feel a very strong desire to write something snarky about this quote… but then I think there may be some truth to it.


31: It turns out that a year of hindsight wasn’t needed to assess item 12 on this list: patients are arriving at Nightingale hospitals and lockdown is back. Unless, of course, I just did a Cummings and retrospectively edited my predictions to fit.

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

30 things I learned in September 2020

1: “We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked.”


2: Reminded of Ogden Nash’s observation that “Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker,” and his later regretful postscript that “Nothing makes me sicker / Than liquor / And candy / Is too expandy.”


3: Artificial banana flavours are usually based on a type of banana which is no longer commonly sold, which is why banana flavour generally doesn’t taste like banana. It’s all the same to me, as I don’t really enjoy either.


4: The Economist says Donald Trump is very likely to challenge the result of the US presidential election. By the time this blog post is published, you’ll have the benefit of hindsight in knowing whether that prediction comes true. As I write this on a bright and windy September morning in Bangor, it feels depressingly hard not to assume—despite the statistical modelling—that Trump won’t somehow win the election without any legal challenge. It’s noticeable how much tighter the odds are at the bookies than in the press: William Hill is offering the same 10/11 odds for both Trump and Biden wins, while The Economist’s tracker has Biden on an 85% chance of winning.


5: Kindles collect more data than you would think.


6: “The pandemic will end. But in India, Tunisia and Peru, there are signs the surveillance will not.”


7: “There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year. There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free-trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”


8: Maps in journalism are hard.


9: “Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe.”


10: “The ‘Moonshot’ scheme is better understood as a benign version of President Trump’s wall: a populist symbol of intent and determination, designed to mobilise public support and confidence, with little or no chance of being completed. It is surely no accident that the plan leaked on the very day that Johnson urged the country to behave with greater responsibility, limited gatherings to six and reminded people to wash their hands, wear masks and observe social distancing. After the stick, this was a carrot-shaped moonshot.”


11: Elisabeth Blik is a leading “image sleuth” in biomedical research. Who knew that was a thing?!


12: London’s bridges really are falling down. “Hammersmith Bridge is an apt metaphor for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic, the last of which has decimated already-stressed public finances.”


13: Her Majesty’s Theatre is in a sorry state:


14: “Everyone has been in a meeting where the most vocal and confident person in the room clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But the most harmful meetings are the ones where that’s happening and the group can’t even recognize it.” I wonder to what extent this problem plagues Government decision-making?


15: A refreshingly clear account of what went wrong with GCSE and A-Level results this summer.


16: I’m reading Lorna Arnold’s account of the accident at Windscale in 1957 at the moment. The opening chapter portrays a small localised part of a national organisation that is undergoing a massive politically driven restructure, which cannot recruit enough professional expert staff to replace those it is losing, let alone to support the enforced expansion. Arnold says, “Windscale was over-worked and under-manned with inadequate research support, but it was a well-run site with hard-working and dedicated staff. They tackled their problems tenaciously, overcame formidable difficulties and met the demands made on them.” The whole section feels like it could be lifted from the inevitable covid-19 inquiry.


17: “The problem with the fall of a democracy is that it doesn’t simply happen, like a rain shower or a thunderstorm. It unfolds, like the slow and steady warming of the climate. Liberties aren’t eliminated, they are restricted and violated – until they erode. Rights aren’t abolished, they are undermined and trampled – until they become privileges. Truths aren’t buried, they are mocked and twisted – until everyone has their own. A democracy doesn’t stumble and fall; it slides into decline.”


18: The Prime Minister, who pledged in April that he would not “throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and risk a second major outbreak” of covid-19 acknowledges that the UK is “now seeing a second wave” of covid-19.


19: Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. She was inspirational in so many ways. Her career-long elucidation of how the whole of society is harmed by discrimination on the basis of sex is a message which is feels still hasn’t been fully absorbed across US and UK society even in 2020.


20: A month ago, I was very sceptical… but Streaks has proven remarkably at convincing me to remember to do important but mundane everyday tasks that I otherwise frequently forget (like flossing).


21: The Government’s peri-peri-ometer is rising back to “hot”.


22: Everyone was in the office, then out, then in, then out. Just one more cycle left before we get to shake it all about, do the hokey-cokey and turn around.


23: It’s 21 years—22 by the time this is published—since I registered my first domain name.


24: It’s not so long ago that Wendy first came across (and was appalled by) Fanny Craddock, thanks to a repeat of her Christmas series, so I read this profile with amusement. (“Her appearance got more striking each year, and by the time of that Christmas series—presented without Johnnie—she resembled a psychedelic Cruella de Vil, her face heavily powdered, her eyebrows plucked and redrawn an inch above her eyes, her hair decorated with large pink ribbons. She was—and still is—magnificently watchable, partly because she’s so elusive; she switches from ingratiating smiles to impatient scowls so quickly that one can’t tell what she’s thinking or feeling, whether she wants to embrace her viewers or rap their knuckles.”)


25: Subscription shoes are (almost) a thing now: when this post goes live in twelve months’ time, they should have launched.


26: The jabot is back in fashion. Apparently.


27: Since Pret launched takeaway coffees by subscription, their shops have been rammed and I’ve had to join a long queue to buy my lunch. The staff in my local shop have been not-so-quietly grumbling about the amount of money the store is losing as a result. It’s hard to know whether a reverse ferret might be coming, or whether this is a “first month” effect (given that the first month is free).


28: “Of systemic action adopted in England for the pre- vention of the importation of infectious diseases, the system of quarantine (in the commonly received sense of that term) performs an extremely small part.” Only written 143 years ago.


29: American presidential debates rarely change election outcomes.


30: FTP is dying.

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

31 things I learned in May 2020

1: We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm.


2: A monk’s cowl is “meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves.”


3: “While the rest of us headed into lockdown worrying about whether we had enough toilet roll and ketchup, the super-rich were desperately trying to recruit live-in staff.” I’m not usually partial to cheap reverse snobbery, but that article had some zinging lines in it.


4: Paul Collier’s critique in The TLS of the UK Government response to covid-19 is the best I’ve read to date (though admittedly I’m trying to avoid reading too much on covid-19 outside of work). I don’t agree with the detail of all of his conclusions, but I think he brings important issues to the surface.


5: “There are many modern thinkers who emphasise the individual’s dependency upon society. It is, on the contrary, only the cultivation of interior solitude, among crowded lives, that makes society endurable.” So said John Cowper Powys, apparently. I tend to agree.


6: “In Europe, bunks on a night train have traditionally been set at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, like the teeth of a comb. In America, the custom was to place them lengthways, so that your body, when horizontal, slotted into the train like a bullet in the breach of a rifle.” I could have lived my entire life without this delightful bit of trivia ever coming to my attention.


7: “The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.” I’m a covid-19 app sceptic: I don’t think the uptake will be anywhere near 80% of smartphones (as is hoped) and nor do I think that there will be comparable compliance with isolation advice given by app and that given in a human conversation. Twelve months from now, when this post is published and the app has proven to be a rip-roaring success, you can comment and tell me what a fool I am for posting such silly predictions.


8: Moving a Bank Holiday to a Friday makes it more difficult to know what day it is. Lockdown and the consequent intense but irregular working pattern already made it hard enough for me.


9: The details in The Economist‘s cover images sometimes pass me by.


10: “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”


11: Gillian Tett’s observation that “Americans are wearily used to the idea that 40,000 die each year from guns, and many accept this as the price of freedom” helped me see grim fatalism as one response to the lifting of the covid lockdown: the polar opposite of the safety first, fear-driven response that many pundits predict will dominate.


12: “Britain is so preoccupied by the virus that it is devoting far too little attention to its Brexit negotiations, increasing the chances that an on-time Brexit will also be a bitter Brexit.” I’m fairly confident that, despite current bluster, the Government will end up asking for an extension of the transition period. (This post is rapidly turning into “31 predictions from May 2020” rather than 31 lessons…)


13: Will Self’s article on the mechanics of freelance journalism, published in the reputedly low-paying TLS, opened my eyes to the basic realities of that profession.


14: My local petrol station is now charging less than £1/litre.


15: “Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.” Bless.


16: Uncertainty about the safety and effectiveness of contact tracing apps is growing. The Economist has a published a leader on the topic: “They are an attractive idea. Yet contact-tracing apps are also an untested medical invention that will be introduced without the sort of safeguards that new drugs are subjected to. Inaccurate information can mislead health officials and citizens in ways that can be as harmful as any failed drug. Governments should proceed with care.”


17: “The most important breakthroughs in medical interventions – antibiotics, insulin, the polio vaccine – were developed in social and financial contexts that were completely unlike the context of pharmaceutical profit today. Those breakthroughs were indeed radically effective, unlike most of the blockbusters today.” This is obvious when you think about it, but I’ve never really thought about it before.


18: Multi-person iron lungs existed.


19: Chloe Wilson, who I’ve never come across before, seems to be quite a writer.


20: Cereal taught me the Korean idiom “when tigers used to smoke,” meaning a very long time ago. And also the lovely saying “deep sincerity can make grass grow on stone.”


21: Vitamin String Quartet covered the whole of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and somehow this news has passed me by for the best part of four years, even though I like Vitamin String Quartet and love Random Access Memories.


22: “A local leader characterises PHE’s response to the crisis as ‘carry on covid.'” It seems that even The Economist has now concluded that Public Health England is “unlikely to survive the crisis.”


23: This video introduced me to several new terms unique to the world of antiquarian book repair (though Slightly Foxed taught me the meaning of ‘slightly foxed’ some years ago!)


24: Itsu’s katsu rice noodles are lovely, even if they are basically a posh pot noodle.


25: Going for a drive to test one’s eyesight is, according to the government, an acceptable reason for deviating from “stay at home” advice.


26: How different artists approached drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


27: Dr Bonnie Henry has had some shoes made in her honour. And they sold out quickly.


28: A month ago, I don’t think I could have confidently defined ‘pangram’. Now, I’m coming across them everywhere: there’s been a running feature in The Times diary column, they feature in Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which I’m currently reading, and The Browser recently recommended an article about them. My current favourite is ‘amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes’.


29: The Twentieth Century Society made me aware that tax incentives promote new construction over refurbishment, which is part of the reason why perfectly sound buildings are often demolished rather than repurposed.


30: It’s been lovely to have a day off and go for a walk with Wendy. COVID-19 work has run us both ragged recently. I’ve also had my first takeaway coffee in several months.


31: According to anonymous sources talking to The Sunday Times, “Boris has always been clear that he doesn’t ever say sorry,” “these stories about Boris being fed up with the job are all true” and “the chances of Boris leading us into the next election have fallen massively.”

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