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30 things I learned in April 2020

1: In terms of the response of many governments to covid-19, David Runciman suggests that “For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.” I hope that’s not true. If there’s one lesson we always say we need to learn after every crisis, it’s that we need to do more planning for the “recovery phase”, the return to normality (even if that is a new normal). I hope the UK’s government is thinking on that.


2: Contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, it turns out that I am the kind of person who stands in a queue outside Asda. Covid-19 has done strange things to us all.


3: Doctors often spend a lot of time moaning about the involvement of politicians in political decisions about healthcare. I appreciated this article from Political Violence at a Glance for giving a brief but thoughtful answer to the question: “In pandemics, should the experts or the politicians be in charge?”


4: Dies Irae is quoted in a lot of films. Who knew that Gregorian chant is so relevant to modern cinema?


5: Teacher training in England is a mess.


6: Mario’s moustache is there for a reason.


7: There’s a great article in the April/May 2020 edition of Courier—not online as far as I can tell—about what a company learned from deciding to pay all their staff the same salary. It didn’t work out for them. Courier does these articles on failed business experiments really well: it’s great to see failure embraced and learning shared rather than just pretending everything works all the time.


8: “There is no sweeter moment than passing a middle-aged man in lycra on a carbon-fibre road bike when you’re riding a Dutch bike in a dress.”


9: According to a lecture by Dr Mary Rogers who manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance Programme, from all the SARS-CoV-2 viruses genetically sequenced to date from over twenty countries, there is only variation in 149 positions in a 29,000nt virus (i.e. very little mutation and variation).


10: “Whether one agrees with Trump’s policies or not, his administration has accomplished much of what it set out to.” I sometimes think that the collective outrage at Trump’s policies obscures the fact that he delivers on them. I would never have believed on 9 November 2016 that Trump would still be in office today, let alone that he would have actually delivered on his outlandish promises.


11: Bats have weird immune systems.


12: Stoking anger and resentment in difficult times still sadly brings gainful employment for some, according to Andrew Tuck: “At the park there’s a man lurking by the bushes. He’s got a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his arm. He’s here not to spot a rare bird in the trees but to try to catch out people sunbathing, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who does not live in their household (I know this because a few hours later I check the tabloid sites to confirm my suspicions and there are his pictures). He’s also got a series of people allegedly cycling too close to one another. But they are not what they seem to be. He’s simply used the lens to make it look like people are super close by shortening the field of vision. With a country on edge, it’s incredible why anyone would try to sow unease.”


13: In the context of the Prime Minister’s covid-19 diagnosis, “Donald Trump described Johnson as a man who ‘doesn’t give up’. Which is about as disrespectful a thing one could say in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have died of the virus, and presumably just couldn’t be arsed to hang around.”


14: Canine life coach is a career option.


15: I read a lot of library books and have never really worried about catching infections from them. But Gill Partington seems to think I should worry (and according to this article, Public Health England has guidance on cleaning library books, which was also news to me).


16: It’s easy to forget the unprecedented pace of social change over the last hundred years, which means it’s easy for a news report from a century ago to knock my socks off with its attitude to gender politics.


17: The Government’s latest covid-19 graphic feels strangely reminiscent of certain 1990s weekend shopping trips.

Staying@ 
for Britain 
All in, au together.Stay@

18: It’s “unlikely in the extreme” that covid-19 will delay November’s US presidential election.


19: The Economist reckons that “apps built using Apple’s and Google’s new [covid-19] protocol ought to focus on providing information to technologically empowered human contact-tracing teams, not on automating the whole process.” I agree; I’m not sure whether or not that’s PHE’s view.


20: Streaming funerals online raises interesting theological questions.


21: By dint of being in the second half of the decade, I don’t think I can describe myself as being in my “early thirties” anymore. In Misbehaving, Richard Thaler suggested that people can no longer be considered “promising” once they turn forty. To wit: I’m now a “promising thirty-something.”


22: According to this headline, the ideal moment to invite more people to attend NHS services is the moment of greatest pressure on those services.


23: Some pigeons have their rectums checked for incendiary devices.


24: Some days, I just despair.


25: Van Gogh’s isolation in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum influenced his art in interesting ways.


26: A Time-ly reminder that hospitals are only as strong as their domestic workforce.


27: In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that “style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.” Events over the last few days have made me think a lot about how consistent and accurate advice is crucial for outbreak control, but I had been thinking in terms of ethics and efficacy. Trust is, of course, especially important too: people don’t follow advice they don’t trust. It’s normally the sort of thing I bang on about a lot, so it’s interesting to reflect on why it was so far from my mind this weekend.


28: “The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.” (But but but…)


29: Today, I’ve had Adam Buxton’s take on the Quantum of Solace theme stuck in my head. It must be twelve years since I heard it on 6music, so I’ve no idea why my brain dragged that up!


30: I didn’t realise I was tired tonight until I woke up having falling asleep while reading in an armchair. I’m not sure this is correct behaviour for a promising thirty-something.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I haven’t got round to any of my Christmas books yet! Here are the seven books that are first on my “read in 2021” list.


The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

It takes a certain pluck to choose as an epigraph a quotation from a fictional work ‘written’ by a character you created, as Boyne does for this exceptional 2017 novel. His quote is from Maude Avery who, a novelist and adoptive mother to the protagonist, proved to be a new addition to my list of favourite literary characters.

Characterisation is at the heart of this book. The book follows the life of Charles Avery from his birth in the months after the Second World War, through seven-year intervals to his seventieth year. Charles is Irish, but spends parts of his life in a number of different cities.

This book reminded me a little of opera, in that the plot is faintly ridiculous and jam-packed with slightly absurd co-incidences, but this didn’t really matter. The plot served only as a device to allow for deeper characterisation and to string together moments of high emotional drama, all set against the accelerated pace of change in social values which characterised the second half of the twentieth century.

Boyne deftly moved between very funny passages (even a little slapstick at times) and deeply moving scenes in a way that never jarred.

I feel like I’ve made this sound terribly dry, whereas (more than anything else) it was riotously good fun.


The Imaginary Museum by Ben Eastham

Published in 2020, this is Eastham’s creative essay on the appreciation of contemporary art. It is structured as a tour around Eastham’s imaginary museum, and weaves together elements of his own history with art, discussion of specific pieces, and the big contemporary debates about what ‘counts’ as art and who funds it.

This was a highly readable and enjoyable essay which covered many of the main talking points in contemporary art in a manner which was friendly to me a something of a novice. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha

This is the first of two books I’ve read this month from of a series of five essays in the FUTURES series published by Tortoise Media in 2020. The series take inspiration from books published in the 1920s which attempted to give a broad and constructive view of the future in different spheres of life, with the aim of generating new ideas and stimulating thought and discussion.

This essay, by Bidisha, considers the future of ‘serious art’ (which isn’t particularly clearly defined). It is a clear and passionate argument about the importance of art. Bidisha reflects on the ‘Cool Britannia’ era of Labour government, and contrasts this with the approach to the arts during austerity and all that has followed.

I enjoyed this mostly for the opportunity of reading an artist’s take on the future, which I suppose is the point of the book!


The Future of Men by Grace Campbell

This is the second in the series of Tortoise Media FUTURES essays I’ve read. This is Grace Campbell, comedian and daughter of Alastair Campbell (who features heavily) on ‘the future of men’.

The book read a little like stand-up comedy, interspersed with three transcribed interviews (one with the author’s father, another with her boyfriend, and another with a gay best friend). The central arguments around feminism and toxic masculinity are agreeable enough, but covered to such a comprehensive extent elsewhere that I didn’t really feel this volume added much.

This was a short and funny read, but the better-known books by Ngozi Adichie and Grayson Perry are, to my mind, better guides to the same territory.


Art Deco Britain by Elain Harwood

Published in 2019, this was the Twentieth Century Society’s book by Elain Harwood on the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. It was a coffee table format, with each of about a hundred buildings presented in facing pages with a full-page photo on one plate and a few paragraphs of text on the facing plate. The book is arranged into sections according to the original designed purpose of the buildings, starting with residential buildings (which I found least interesting – I would have basically reversed the order of the sections). There was also a good fifteen-page introduction to set the context.

I picked this up because I’ve been a member of the Twentieth Century Society for a while due to a mild interest in late c20 architecture, but didn’t really know anything about the British architecture associated with the earlier part of the century and the interwar period. I picked up quite a bit from this enjoyable introduction: there were quite a few buildings in here which I wouldn’t have recognised as Art Deco without Harwood’s explanatory text.


The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

This was Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book published earlier this year. It covered frequently overlooked aspects of urban design, based on the 99% Invisible podcast.

The book is structured in short sections, each giving a few paragraphs to a design element. I found these a bit frustrating: they were frequently far too short to include any real analysis. The book was also US-centric to a disappointing degree.

However, perhaps the most frustrating part of the book was the design decision to include line drawings rather than photographs. The elements of design discussed would often have benefitted from photographic illustration, and the line drawings often seemed completely disconnected from the text: they frequently didn’t even show the aspect of design under discussion.

As a result, while there were interesting parts, this book didn’t really work for me.


The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Good grief, Pinker’s 2011 oft-mentioned tome on why violence has declined was a slog and a half. I should have known better: I didn’t enjoy Pinker’s style in, erm, “The Sense of Style”, so I’m not sure what convinced me to embark on 724 pages of his writing (plus 1,955 endnotes for good measure).

The central arguments in this book were interesting, and there were nuggets of gold to be found. But Pinker has an exceptionally irritating habit of citing way more examples to illustrate a point than I really want to wade through.

At the micro level, this is merely eye-rolling (eg listing ten common expressions where a couple would do, or four generic names where ‘Tom, Dick and Harriet’ would be good enough for most writers).

At the macro level, it starts to undermine his case. He uses the original published findings of the Zimbardo prison experiment and the Milgram experiment to illustrate a couple of his points, despite these having been roundly debunked, and it becomes hard to engage in the cognitive dissonance necessary to take the 72 other examples cited for each of these points on trust.

The style was so annoying that it’s taken me months to get through this, reading bits between other things. But I suppose there were enough points of interest to keep me coming back. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Pinker’s books, though.

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