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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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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eleven books to tell you about this month.


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

I loved this book. First published in 1963, this was a collection of twenty short stories about Marcovaldo, a poor Italian man who was fond of nature and rural life but lived with his family in a big city. The stories followed a seasonal cycle, so that there were five set in each of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In each story, Marcovaldo engaged with nature or the physical world in some way, and the outcomes were always unexpected. There was a lot of humour (I could imagine Marcovaldo being reduced to a comedy character on TV), but there was an equal amount of philosophy and some melancholy.

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. But then I really like Calvino’s style, and know that it isn’t universally loved. The translation I read was by William Weaver.

I enjoyed this so much that I didn’t want it to end, and tried to give myself time to reflect on each story before reading the next.


Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

This satire was first published in 1948, but if I didn’t know that, I’d have guessed that it was published last year. (In fact, it was republished by Persephone in 2018.)

The plot followed five people who, having been marooned on a desert island for some years, returned to England in 1945 to find it transformed into “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The country was divided along strict class lines, with every citizen receiving one of five Government-assigned grades, and required to live in accordance with what would be expected of their class. The novel primarily focused on the experiences of the privileged James Leigh-Smith (indistinguishable from Jacob Rees-Mogg), and largely left the reader to fill in the blanks and draw the moral lessons.

This was a really easy and fun read with a clearly enduring underlying message.


Mary Poppins by PL Travers

Wendy loves Mary Poppins, so after 16 years of not entirely voluntary viewings of the Julie Andrews film, the more recent Saving Mr Banks and Mary Poppins Returns, and countless features and documentaries, I decided it was time to engage with the original source material.

Obviously, it was a children’s book, but I was surprised how dark it was—and it was more interesting for it.

Mary Poppins, a truly memorable character, was acid-tongued, cold and vain. Mr and Mrs Banks had little interest in or interaction with their children.

I think many younger children would be scared by the situations into which Poppins lures the children, such as the full moon birthday party in which shes surrounded by snakes.

Neither the book nor the character have the redeeming and nurturing warmth I expected, which left me more intrigued than if this had been the more saccharine tale I imagined.


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

I had never read anything by Houellebecq before, but knew of his reputation for gloom. This book lived up to that reputation, mostly in a good way. I read the translation by Shaun Whiteside.

The protagonist was a depressed agricultural advisor to the French government on farming and agricultural matters. He was prescribed a novel antidepressant which increased his serotonin level (hence the title). The novel followed this not entirely likable character as he made increasingly strange life choices.

The high suicide rate among agricultural workers is well known, but this novel made me think a bit more about the myriad causes of this, especially in modern society. It was also good at giving a slightly different perspective on the experience of depression and medication. There was a good dose of dark humour mixed in with the tragedy.

There was a fair amount of gratuitous sex, including bestiality and paedophilia, which seemed like it was there more to shock than to perform any intrinsic function. Also, in one of those bizarre turns of fate, there’s a section in this reflecting on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, which I was reading at the same time!


Night Train by Martin Amis

This was a book that started off as a crime procedural narrated by a policewoman called Mike, but turned out not to be a crime procedural at all. It was rather a sort of dark fictional philosophical exploration of suicide.

By pure coincidence, I had Miles Davis playing as I read much of this, and I was struck by how the writing seemed ‘jazzy’: police procedural cliche played with, improvised, turned on its head, and using the same forms to different ends. I enjoyed it.


The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve flicked through, I enjoyed this less than A Study in Scarlet. It felt like there was more padding, and the long narrated resolution at the end felt more tedious than than the second part of the first book.

While I of course accept that the casual racism and pejorative language used by Conan Doyle reflect the social mores of the time it was written, the quantity of it in this volume became a bit wearing.


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I picked this up because it was featured in an article about how brilliant ‘young adult’ fiction had become and how we should all be reading more of it. It was a ‘love through secret correspondence’ story with a gay 16-year-old high school student as the protagonist and narrator.

The straightforward plot dealt with issues of contemporary high school life, including traditional tropes like bullying and blackmail, and some more modern concerns, such as emails and blogging.

It felt tightly targeted at its audience: many of the cultural references passed me by somewhat (though I can’t be certain whether that was an age thing or a not-being-American thing). It is narrowly focused on high school life, and it limited itself to the sort of language teenagers use. There is a very teenage dichotomy in which almost everything in the book is either “freaking awesome” or terrible, which felt true to life, but a little wearing. Overall, the writing felt a bit teenage, which is what the author was going for, but doesn’t really have a great deal of interest for me.

All things considered, this seemed like a well-constructed book, but it didn’t really convince me that we should all be reading more young adult fiction.


Murmur by Will Eaves

This was a novel based on the imagined thoughts of Alan Turing as he experienced chemical castration and the associated psychological therapy.

In fact, the main character was a sort of ‘version’ of Turing called Alec Pryor, but having read a biography of Turing relatively recently, I recognised that many of the peripheral characters share the forenames of similar characters in Turing’s life. As if that wasn’t a complicated enough premise, several of the sections were dream sequences imagined by Pryor.

This layer upon layer of narrative complexity allowed Eaves to explore all sorts of interesting territory relevant to Turing’s life, from the morality of his treatment to the nature of consciousness to the development of artificial intelligence.

This was a very clever book which I think would reward multiple close readings. I often found myself a bit disorientated in terms of the plot, and while that sometimes made it a bit of a chore, I mostly found myself carried along by the writing, the fantastically poetic imagery, and the exploration of complex ideas.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

A collection of twelve short stories about Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by Dr Watson. Obviously a classic and one where everyone knows what they’re getting!

I personally preferred getting engrossed in the full-length novels earlier in the series than these short stories, but I still enjoyed seeing how the characters developed over the course of the collection.


Journeys: Tortoise Quarterly, 1ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Matthew D’Ancona’s account of experiencing delirium while he was a patient on a high dependency unit, Ian Ridley’s moving story of his wife’s death from cancer, and Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa’s reflections on working as a cold caller.


Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I fully recognise that this has a reputation as one of the greatest collections of short science fiction stories ever written, but it was just not for me.

I don’t usually enjoy science fiction but decided to challenge myself with this: it has a reputation for being so accomplished that it appeals to people who don’t usually enjoy science fiction. But I found it a real slog to get through.

I’m not sure what it is that generates such a negative reaction in me. I think it might be something to do with the fantastical nature of much science fiction—I don’t like fantasy stories either, so perhaps my imagination is limited to stuff grounded in reality.

I think it might also be something to do with the writing, which often struck me as inelegant, despite clearly being loved and respected by better informed people than me—to me it often felt more scientific than poetic, and I think I prefer poetic descriptions of emotions (not ‘Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but also because it renewed and emphasised the previous pains of his life.’)

So I’m still not a fan of science fiction.

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