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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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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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How much would you pay to keep using Google?

The Economist’s data team has today published a blog post called “How much would you pay to keep using Google?” Unusually for The Economist, the headline isn’t really an accurate representation of the contents, which actually discuss research findings related to the amount people would have to be paid to give up using search engines in general.

But the original question got me thinking. A couple of years ago, I’d have responded with a fairly substantial sum. These days, I’m not so sure. I wonder what that says about the state of the company?

Google used to be the only decent search engine. That is no longer true. A couple of years ago, I decided to see if it was possible to go all-in on Bing. Ironically, this was somewhat inspired by Matt Cutts, formerly of Google, who gives himself 28-day challenges to test assumptions and better himself. Surely, I reasoned, it can’t be as bad as people make out, nor as bad in daily use as an occasional search to try it out makes it seem. I switched my default search engine to Bing in Chrome and on my mobile.

And do you know what? The vast majority of the time, it is perfectly competent. On very rare occasions when I’m struggling to find something I also try searching on Google: I’d say 75% of the time, I also fail to find what I’m looking for there. I’d also say, without any proper data to back up the assertion, that Bing’s results seem less replete with spammy useless links than Google’s. And Bing’s rewards scheme buys me an occasional coffee. I don’t think I’d pay for Google search.

But of course, Google provides more than just search. Would I pay for other components of their offer?

Would I pay for Gmail? There are perfectly decent alternatives to Gmail, and I rarely use my actual Gmail address but forward stuff to it from elsewhere, so redirecting future mail wouldn’t be a problem. Moving the archive would be a pain. I’d probably pay a small fee—a pound a month?—just to avoid the hassle.

One service I would definitely pay for is Google Maps. I use Google Maps every day and have not found anything that can even begin to compete. Back in December, Justin O’Beirne wrote a great essay on Google Maps’s moat—the content and time barrier which keeps it well ahead of competitors. On these terms, I guess Google Maps is probably the most “valuable” bit of Google to me.

Google Drive is great, but OneDrive is pretty great too. Chrome is my current default browser, but I’d happily switch to Firefox. Google Calendar is actually quite irritating (especially since ‘quick add’ was removed) and I use it only because it’s handy. I like my Android phone, but I’d get by on iOS. I’d be sad to lose my Chromebook, but Windows laptops aren’t quite the horror shows they used to be.

I enjoy watching occasional Youtube videos, but I wouldn’t really miss them if I couldn’t watch them any more. I use Google Photos, but I also upload all of my photos to other cloud services, at least in part because I don’t trust Google not to shut down Photos when it turns its attention elsewhere (à la Google Reader or Google Notebook, both of which closed while I was an active user).

More recent Google developments (Home, Assistant, Allo, Duo, Now) have totally passed me by.

Jeff Jarvis used to talk about “livin’ la vida Google” to describe his complete immersion in the Google universe. A couple of years ago, I’d have put myself in a similar category, but no longer. I am only one person, and I’ve no idea how ‘typical’ I am in this context, but I wonder if my change in behaviour represents a wider portentous shift for Google’s fortunes?


The photo at the top was posted on Flickr by Sigurd Magnusson, and is reproduced here under its Creative Commons licence.

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