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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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What I’ve been reading this month

Jeanete Winterson’s Frankissstein blew me away this month. It was an astonishingly imaginative modern-day re-exploration of questions raised by Frankenstein. Frankissstein told an imaginative story of Mary Shelley’s 19th century creation of Frankenstein, woven together with the 21st century story of a fictional transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who explored the surprisingly intersecting worlds of artificial intelligence and cryogenics. But really, Frankissstein was a book which revisited the questions about ethics and humanity raised by Shelley two centuries ago and asked them again in the context of modern scientific progress. I found this completely breathtakingly brilliant, and it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Good friends bought a copy of Sam Savage’s Firmin for my birthday earlier in the year: if they hadn’t, I would never have picked it up for myself, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose that makes it the perfect present! It was a short novel narrated the eponymous rat who lived in a book shop in 1960s Boston. Born to an alcoholic mother, Firmin taught himself to read and ultimately became well versed in human culture despite an obvious inability to communicate with people. This may sound like the premise for a children’s book, but in fact it made for a charming commentary on the human condition. It was rather moving in it’s own way – and also had plenty of wit. I enjoy authors who employ just a dash of madness to illuminate different ways of looking at the world, and this is most certainly along those lines.

Graeme Simsion’s “Don Tillman” trilogy, concerning a scientist with a probable diagnosis of autism, concludes with The Rosie Result, which I enjoyed this month. The final volume concentrates on Don’s relationship with his son, and was a rather heart-warming way to wrap up the series.

10% Happier was a memoir by lovably self-important American newsreader and reporter Dan Harris, who suffered a panic attack while reading the news on TV. In his capacity as a religion correspondent, he got to meet a lot of people with interesting viewpoints on life, and he ultimately came to find that meditation helped him to become a calmer and more compassionate person. There was nothing earth-shattering in the book, but I did find it witty and occasionally somewhat insightful. It was a fun, light read.

The Swimming Pool Library, written by Alan Hollinghurst and first published in 1989, focused on the relationship between a pair of gay male aristocrats in the 1980s. The older man asked the younger to write his autobiography, and in so-doing caused the younger to reflect on the differences in the lives of gay men in the periods in which they both lived. The novel felt very dated to me, and the way in which both characters were obsessed with sex felt reductive. The descriptions of sexual acts, no doubt deeply shocking in the 1980s, had somewhat lost their impact in 2019. All things considered, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book: I think this is possibly just the wrong historical moment to read it, when the 1980s are too recent in memory for this to seem like a truly historical account, but too far away for the book to feel current and relevant.

I picked up Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and rather regretted it. I’d read that it was better than the title suggested, but it seemed to me to be nothing more than half-baked misinterpretations of ancient philosophy written in a snarky tone and filled with unnecessary swearing. It wasn’t for me.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection this month.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes contained three short stories published in the 1920s, all of which took the form of diary entries about rejected love. All three made me laugh out loud, with some brilliant turns of phrase.

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was a story of a Zimbabwean community uprooted as part of the effort to clean up a township in advance of a visit from the Queen. The story focused on a woman who had “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy”. Gappah created a vivid world with so much packed into it that I was a little disappointed that the story ran to only 41 pages.

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall was a short story told from the perspective of a man whose wife unaccountably turned into a fox. This was far too magical and unreal for my taste, and I found it difficult to understand the characters’ lack of emotional reaction to this quite extraordinary event. I suppose it was an allegory for something, but I’m afraid the meaning passed me by.

Sally Ronney’s Mr Salary was the story of a woman in her 20s, her dying father and her older lover. It was told mostly through dialogue, which felt flat and false to me, and the whole story left me unmoved. But people who know much more about literature than me constantly praise Rooney’s ear for dialogue, so perhaps I’m just on the wrong wavelength or something.

In The Victim, PD James tells the story of a man plotting and carrying out the murder of the new husband of his ex-wife. This felt weirdly pedestrian to me given the subject matter. Maybe there is talent in that, but it made for a surprisingly dull story.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Long-time readers will know that I think Will Storr is one of my favourite writers. His latest book, The Science of Storytelling, was really aimed at other writers: it gave advice backed by psychology on the creation of works of fiction. I found myself completely absorbed in Storr’s discussion of storytelling theory. I really enjoyed the way that he connected science and art (as he always does), and I was very much taken with the examples he chose to present throughout his book, some of which were among my own favourite books. Because I’m not the target audience, some of the content was of less interest – for example, the appendix on story frameworks – but I devoured and enjoyed the whole book nevertheless.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, was a short book reflecting on the psychological benefits of cleaning. The passion of the argument was more than sufficient to carry the length of this short book, and so I really enjoyed it. It was neither particularly deep and philosophical nor a great source of practical cleaning tips; it’s just an enjoyable, well-written and concise explanation of a passionately held point of view.

Emily Maitlis’s much-lauded Airhead, a series of anecdotes about conducting television interviews, left me a little disappointed. Many of the anecdotes were about things that have gone wrong and Maitlis had enough wit to make these genuinely funny. Some were more thoughtful – Maitlis reflects interestingly on the shift from volunteering on the morning following the Grenfell fire to presenting an edition of Newsnight the same evening. But there wasn’t much more to this book than a series of anecdotes: no reflections on the changing media landscape, nothing about Maitlis’s personal development over time, and no grand argument which she was trying to prove. I enjoyed this book, but left it thinking: “So what?”

Another wildly popular book that did little for me: Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a book about two people – Marianne and Connell – who grew up together and remain friends into adulthood. Their level of closeness varied over time. The two main characters have been widely praised for being very lifelike, but didn’t seem that way to me. This was partly, I think, because the dialogue between them was rather oddly stilted and formal considering their closeness, and partly because the other characters were so lightly described as to be hardly there, which made their world feel thin. I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about: but this was on the Booker Prize long-list, so the problem is more likely to be me than the book!

Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, first published in 1995, was a much-lauded darkly comic novel of a woman scorned and going to extreme lengths to reinvent herself and exact revenge. There were some great lines, but the whole thing felt pretty dated to me, especially in terms of gender politics/ stereotypes. The comedy felt a bit thin to me: revenge can be entertaining, but revenge seemed to be the only note this book was willing to play.

I often complain that I don’t really like short stories: but in truth, I wonder if I’ve just always picked bad ones. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read the twenty short stories picked by Faber for their 90th anniversary ‘Faber Stories’ collection over the next… well, I haven’t set myself a deadline.

The first of these I picked up was Julia O’Faolain’s Daughters of Passion, a short story in which an increasingly delusional IRA hunger-striker reflects on the childhood friendship which led to her involvement with the IRA. I enjoyed this: O’Foalain played with language in creative ways to reflect different mental states, and drew subtle connectiosn between delusion, misunderstanding and terrorism. All in 49 pages.

The second was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I found this a bit pedestrian. The story concerned an American family crossing paths with a criminal while on a road trip. Most of the character development is focused on the grandmother. There are a lot of themes hinted at – most prominently the nature of moral good (or perhaps moral evil) in the context of modern American Christianity, but none of the themes were really developed into anything… perhaps because the story was so short.

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