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Losing touch with reality

It feels strange to live through an election period where a change of Government is forecast with—by the sober analysis of The Economist—99% certainty. While it’s democratically essential, even going through the motions of the campaign feels a little disconnected from reality, even before one considers the specific promises made by candidates.

Tonight, Julie Etchingham will host the first televised debate of this election, ostensibly between the two candidates who could plausibly be Prime Minister on 5 July—though it’s hard not to wonder whether more people ought to be involved if a 1 in 100 chance is considered ‘plausible’. It feels like false equivalence—not that I have a better suggestion. It also feels narrowly composed: the recent experience of Prime Ministers leaving office between elections shows us that the candidates are asking us to place our confidence in the leader selection process for each of their parties as much as in them personally.

On Saturday, the always-excellent Stephen Bush had a brilliant article in the FT Weekend exploring how British politics has lost touch with reality. He points out that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are guilty of promising things that they cannot plausibly deliver. It is this three-paragraph excoriation of Rishi Sunak’s failure to make even the simplest of changes that particularly stands out:

Remember, too, that Sunak has been unable to achieve some seemingly achievable policy challenges. Although it is early days, it is hard to see how any political party in the general election will manage a better argument as to why Sunak should not be re-elected than the one that came from the man himself. He described his failed attempt to ban future generations from buying cigarettes as evidence of “the type of prime minister I am”, and he was right. Rishi Sunak is the type of prime minister who, when he wants to do something, when it is backed by large majorities in both his own party and the Labour opposition . . . still can’t reliably deliver.

In this case, his attempt to bring about a “smoke-free generation” — the flagship not only of his attempt to rebrand himself as a “change candidate” last autumn but also one of his signature achievements in his speech calling the election — came unstuck because he couldn’t manage the simple trick of not expediting the legal change ahead of an election he didn’t need to hold.

Whether you agree with Sunak’s phased smoking ban or not, the difficult truth for the prime minister is that passing his ban into law was a public policy challenge with the difficulty turned all the way down to “casual”. Yet he could not manage it. Nor is it an isolated example. One of Sunak’s earliest initiatives was a push to teach all children in England a form of maths until 18. If, as looks likely, he leaves office in five weeks’ time, the country will be less equipped to teach maths to 18 than when he took office — because there are fewer maths teachers. There is no prospect that Sunak, a limited prime minister with few achievements to his name, is going to be able to keep the promises he is now making, any more than he could make the snow fall on Christmas Day and the sun shine in June and July.

In 2024, comparisons are inevitably drawn with the 1997 election. In the exit poll for that election, 57% of the respondents felt that John Major could be trusted, versus 56% for Tony Blair. At the start of the 2024 election campaign, 21% of respondents considered Rishi Sunak to be trustworthy, and 28% considered Keir Starmer to be trustworthy. Those figures portend poorly for Sunak, but perhaps worse for the population, representing as they do a complete collapse of trust in politicians.

We can debate how much of that collapse is attributable to a failure to keep simple promises, and how much to the criminal behaviour of some politicians. But it seems unlikely that the continued disconnect between political rhetoric and reality will repair trust—or that a fantastical television debate will do anything but further damage trust in our politicians.

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

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

I’ve been reading ‘Writing for Busy Readers’ by Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink

This book seems to have had a digital release in September, but isn’t coming out in physical form in the UK until 2024. It’s therefore the first book I’ve read in ages which I’ve read purely digitally. I bought it after the book was referenced in this Johnson column in The Economist.

It’s a short book largely based on behavioural science about how to write clearly and concisely. At work, one of my pet peeves is poorly written corporate communications. I get quite riled when people send mass emails which I can’t understand, frequently with calls to action that are bafflingly unclear. You wouldn’t know it from my rambling on here, but in professional life, I spend a lot of time refining things I write to make them as precise, concise and clear as possible.

As a result, I spent most of this book nodding along. I don’t think I picked up anything new from it, but I appreciated how to authors compiled sage advice into this short, actionable format. It should be required reading for anyone drafting any sort of corporate communication… and many of the principles are applicable in personal life as well.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , , .

Sycamore Gap is all around us

A couple of weeks ago, when I was reflecting on the terrible news of the felling of the tree at Sycamore Gap, I mentioned that

Sycamore Gap also features on endless bits of North East merchandise: often the option left over once the Tyne Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Angel of the North tat has been sold. It always felt like the North East’s symbol for the North East, not necessarily known or appreciated to the same degree by outsiders.

To prove the point, here are six examples I’ve recently seen while wandering the city.

The Economist had a lovely obituary. I particularly liked their line about the tree ‘bearing a pastoral load’, which feels like a neat way of communicating a feeling which is quite difficult to put into words.

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

A game designed for men

I know nothing about sport, but even I’m aware that England faces Spain in the World Cup Final this morning.

I enjoyed reading the Economist’s Simply Science newsletter on the subject, written by Abby Bertics. I had no idea, for example, that “women still overwhelmingly wear football boots designed for small men, not women.”

But the most interesting part of the article concerned some research by Arve Vorland Pedersen, who proposed several modifications to the game to scale it to the physiological attributes of women, rather than those of men. Women are shorter, for example, so the pitch and goals ought to be smaller. Women should not have to live in a world designed for men.

And yet the kicker, so to speak, came at the end. The average physiological attributes of men at the time the sport’s rules were codified have more in common with the average physiological attributes of today’s women than today’s men. So really, the challenge ought not to be to scale things down for women, but up for men.

In today’s world, football is a women’s game.

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

What happened to the book critics?

There’s an article in the latest edition of The Economist which laments the death of the hatchet job in book reviewing. At first, I enjoyed it mostly for the bitchy quotations from bad reviews:

It is delicious to know that one reviewer called John Keats’s poetry “drivelling idiocy”. It is more pleasing yet that Virginia Woolf considered James Joyce’s writing to be “tosh”. And surely no one can be uncheered to hear that when the critic Dorothy Parker read “Winnie the Pooh” she found it so full of innocent, childish whimsy that she—in her own moment of whimsical spelling—“fwowed up”.


In the Victorian era, “reviews were seen as a kind of cultural hygiene, so there were high standards,” says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a professor of English at Oxford University. Reviewers were not merely taking a swipe at an enemy but cleansing the sacred halls of literature. Not that this stopped them from mild grubbiness themselves. For example, one reviewer called a fellow writer’s work “feculent garbage”; the reliably robust Alfred Tennyson called yet another “a louse upon the locks of literature”; while John Milton (apparently having momentarily lost paradise again) described another as an “unswill’d hogshead”.


One of the most famous poems of the Roman writer Catullus is a riposte to critics who accused him of being effeminate. “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” he wrote, which means (broadly speaking): “I will sodomise and face-fuck you.” Not the sort of thing you see in the Times Literary Supplement these days.

But the comments later in the article about the effect of the internet on book reviews came to linger longer in my mind. The article argues that the risk of a social media pile-on has led to fewer scathing reviews.

I then came to read an article by Megan Nolan in the New Stateman and one by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic, both criticising the negativity of the online book-themed social media site Goodreads. They both cite the same examples in some cases, and make the point that many people on the site review books even without reading them.

At first, I was slightly taken aback at how this implies people use Goodreads: I mostly use it to see what people I know in real life thought of books, not to look at the aggregate scores and (seemingly aggressive) reviews of random strangers. I’m not certain why people would attach much weight to this.

And secondly, I thought about how this is a good example of the complexity of the influence of the internet on systems. According to these three articles taken together, the internet has vastly decreased the likelihood of a book being panned by a critic, making professional reviews less valuable as a result of them essentially becoming less discriminating. At the same time, it has drastically increased the likelihood of an amateur reviewer having a disproportionate effect through sharing opinions uninformed by the most basic facts.

It feels like that that might read across to other areas of life, too.

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

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

Workplace jargon

I cannot stand workplace jargon and have developed quite a reputation for challenging or ridiculing it depending on my mood.

But as much as I abhor corporate nonsense words—inane and insane in equal measure—I enjoy being challenged on my deeply-held views. It is one of the key ways I learn and grow. I was therefore delighted to see that the Bartleby column in The Economist this week addresses the upsides of workplace jargon.

Firstly, though, I need to address an error in the column:

Doctors have a private vocabulary for patients when they are out of earshot. “Status dramaticus” is how some medics diagnose people who have not much wrong with them but behave as though death is nigh; “ash cash” is the fee that British doctors pocket for signing cremation forms.

The idea that this sort of unsympathetic, uncaring use of language is ‘the norm’ in my profession is a myth. It’s the sort of language that routinely gets called out, and which gives people an unsavoury reputation.

Regardless, the column cites two main benefits of jargon.

The first is ‘creating a sense of tribe and of belonging’. This may be true, but I do not see this as a virtue. This is essentially suggesting that an exclusive culture is preferable to an inclusive one. The column suggests that knowledge of the language confers ‘membership’, which might be fine in social groups, but is really quite abhorrent in the workplace. People ought to be included by dint of their employment in the organisation, and it is up to the organisation to welcome new recruits; they ought not to be excluded until they acquire ‘membership’ of the cult.

The second is ‘practical reasons’ such as ‘increasing efficiency’. It’s hard to understand how jargon increases efficiency if it excludes some staff members and—as the article cites elsewhere—frequently leads to errors and misunderstandings.

One of the organisations I currently work for is in the process of rolling out a programme to improve wellbeing, morale and a sense of inclusion in the organisation. Let’s imagine that they called it ‘Inclusion for Excellence’, which is not a million miles away from reality. I’m now deluged with corporate communications for the ‘I4E programme’ and seemingly no-one recognises the irony.

The most dangerous jargon of all is the language we don’t even recognise to be jargon. Some years ago, I led the response to an outbreak in a prison. The health services, me included, talked about ’vulnerable prisoners’, meaning those at higher risk of serious illness if they contracted the infection. The prison services heard us talking about ‘vulnerable prisoners’ and thought we meant those in special protection due to the risk of attack from other prisoners. We used identical shorthand for different groups of people.

I concede that I’m not totally opposed to jargon: it can indeed be a useful shorthand in situations where one can be certain that everyone understands what is meant. Everyone uses it, to some degree, every day.

But it is my fervent and unshakeable view that jargon is, for the most part, best avoided. Where unclear language is used and not understood (or misunderstood) it is a failure of the speaker.

And your chosen deity help you if you ever send me an email saying, without further explanation, that you’d like my input into

an innovative outsourced supply chain solution that will drive strategic alignment as we recalibrate towards business as usual

You’re unlikely to receive the reply you’d hoped for.

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

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

How to fix the NHS

There’s nothing I could write today that’s even half as spot-on as yesterday’s Economist leader.

The recipe for saving the NHS requires radicalism, but of a simpler sort: turning the NHS from what it has become—a sickness service—into what its name promises—a health service. That will mean spending more money. But to spend it productively requires a shift in focus: away from hospitals to the community, from treatment to prevention, from incentivising inputs to encouraging better outcomes.

A system focused on hospitals is one designed to treat people only after they have become really sick. That is the equivalent of buying more fire extinguishers while dismantling the smoke alarms.

The whole thing is well worth five minutes of your time.

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

Rubbish meetings

I’ve read two recent articles which were basically about rubbish meetings: ’How to be a superstar on Zoom’, a Bartleby column in The Economist , and ’How to escape the hell of bad meetings’, by Adrian Wooldridge on Bloomberg.

There is certainly a trend within my employing organisation in recent times for holding impractically large meetings via Microsoft Teams. These often seem to a mechanism for effectively broadcasting information which would be better communicated asynchronously, preferably in writing. In my personal notes, I’ve somewhat petulantly developed a habit of recording the number of participants in a meeting along with its length. None of these meetings would have been held pre-pandemic, when we were reliant on audio-only teleconferencing. In these cases, it seems to me that the technology is being used because it is there, not because there is a strong underlying need for it.

There was a notable occasion recently when I sat in a meeting where twenty participants spent half an hour ‘discussing’ whether some minor changes should be made to a document, or whether this was a poor use of time. This was ten person-hours spent discussing whether a task that would take roughly two person-hours was worthwhile. The irony struck no-one.

The close of the Economist article:

The right way for companies to respond is to make meetings shorter and more relevant. Whether you are on camera or in the room, it is always easier to listen when there is something worth hearing.

Well, quite.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

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.

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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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