About me
Bookshop

Get new posts by email.

About me

31 things I learned in January 2020

1: Alan Bennett had open-heart surgery in Spring 2019 and the news completely passed me by.


2: A paucity of Papal patience provides problematic publicity for a Pontiff preaching peaceful pacifism to pious pilgrims.


3: Norovirus probably causes about two-thirds of care home outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease.


4: Fewer than 20% of schools in Texas teach children about safe sex. Texas is among the States with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Any connection is disputed by conservatives.


5: I’m reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive at the moment, and there’s a line advocating for greater ‘mood literacy’ which I found a rather lovely turn of phrase. It reminded me of this blog post advocating examination of one’s own response to the outside world to better understand one’s mood. Both taught me something about self-examination.


6: One of the room booking systems at work requires me to “invite” a given room to attend a meeting. I’ve now learned through bitter experience that rooms can decline invitations… which felt a little humiliating, even if it does open up a whole new seam of entertaining insults (e.g. “that meeting sounds so pointless that even the room declined the invitation”).


7: Populist ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in politics are commonly discussed and clearly dangerous. I’ve been reminded today by an article on the lack of legislation around in vitro fertilisation research in the USA that the opposite—a complete failure to react because issues are complex and divisive—can be just as dangerous.


8: Merely possessing a placebo analgesic, without even opening it, has been shown to reduce pain intensity.


9: The average age of a BBC One viewer is 61. If one considers that a problem, as the BBC seemigly does, then I suppose one might conclude that removing children’s programmes from the channel was not the right approach.


10: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is only a short walk from the city centre and is a great place for a winter stroll. The uphill walk back to the city centre is a touch more tiring.


11: Over the past decade, the proportion of the UK’s electricity generated from wind and solar power has increased from 2.4% to 20.5%. The proportion from coal has fallen from 31% to 2.9%. (As reported in Positive News, though the specific article isn’t online.)


12: Aspiring comedians often go on ‘introduction to stand up’ courses. I’d never thought about these sorts of courses existing, but of course they do.


13: More than half of Luxembourgers speak four languages. The best-selling newspapers in Luxembourg have articles in two languages. This makes me feel inadequate.


14: In the 1990s, John Major mooted renaming Heathrow airport after Churchill, while Lindsay Hoyle and William Hague fancied naming it after Diana.


15: I have long known the North East is an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in primary care, but hadn’t fully realised until a meeting today that the North East isn’t an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in secondary care.


16: I was surprised to read that a survey suggested that only one in three people on the UK knows the standard VAT rate is 20%, and one in ten knows the basic rate of national insurance is 12%. But then, on reflection, my own surprise surprised me, because I don’t really know how or why I know those figures myself. I’m sure there are plenty of similar figures on which I’d have no idea myself!


17: Since last September, Monday to Friday, the City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country.


18: The developers of Morecambe’s Central Retail Park have “put an extraordinary amount of effort into stylising the car park” including quirky themed artworks, sculpted steel waves and effigies of seabirds diving for fish.


19: In the US, a broadly similar amount is spent on treatment for back pain ($88bn) and treatment for cancer ($115bn).


20: Office for National Statistics Travel to Work Areas are an interesting way of dividing up the country.


21: Civil servants in China cannot ordinarily be dismissed. One wonders what Dominic Cummings makes of that.


22: Over 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds in China are short-sighted. The Communist Party has set targets for reducing that, leading to some slightly strange practices in schools, including compulsory twice-daily eye massages and dressings-down for those whose sight worsens over time.


23: It’s not a public health emergency of international concern.


24: Blinded trials are not always best. I remember having to write an essay or answer an exam question on this topic at some point in the past, but haven’t really thought critically about it in years.


25: The attendance fee for the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos is 27,000CHF (£21,400). I will never complain about medical conference registration fees again!


26: Luxury branded homes—as in, “I live in a Bulgari residence” or “I’m in the Porsche apartments”—are now a thing. Is it possible that this is a global conspiracy to see how far the definition of “gauche” can be pushed?


27: “We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love.”


28: “To err is manatee. A manatee might mistake a swimmer’s long hair for shoal grass and start munching away, oblivious to the attached figure. To err is baby elephant, tripping over her trunk. To err is egg-eater and moonrat and turnstone and spaghetti eel, and whales, who eat sweatpants.


29: Pulmonary tuberculosis can be detected in babies by doing PCR tests on faecal specimens. Sensitivity of the test varies according to the exact methods used, and this is an active area of research.


30: It’s a public health emergency of international concern.


31: The TV series Love Island has an unexpectedly innovative business model which involves selling items seen on the show via the app which viewers download to vote for contestants.

This 2,482nd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Californian taxis, gun ownership and democracy

A couple of days ago, Wendy and I took a taxi from our hotel in San Diego to the airport, very kindly paid for by our hotel. The taxi driver was a chatty fellow and struck up the traditional “going to the airport” conversation beloved of taxi driver across the world.

Wendy mentioned that she was from Northern Ireland, which led to all the usual questions: Is that part of the UK? Is all of Ireland in the UK? Don’t the Northern Irish fight with the UK? Is Northern Ireland part of Brexit?


But then: What do people in the UK make of Trump?

Now, I thought we were on safe territory here. We were in California. Even I, as an uninformed Brit, knew California to be a true blue Democratic state. No Republican presidential candidate has won California this century.

Nevertheless, I played it safe with a politely non-committal response, suggesting that while Trump wasn’t personally very popular in the UK, Brits respected the outcome of the election, and the country is so interested in his impact that he’s rarely out of the British newspapers.

The taxi driver’s equal non-committal, “he’s surely shaking things up,” didn’t give any immediate indication of the transgression I’d made.


It was harder to remain neutral on his follow-up: “So what have you thought about guns while you’ve been here?”

Wendy’s eyes widened slightly as I admitted that I’d been slightly uncomfortable to see so many people with guns, from policemen on the streets to the border control officer who’d stamped our passport. This, I explained, was very different to the situation in the UK.

“But police are armed in the UK, right?”

I explained that a small number of officers carry weapons, and that there are armed rapid response units, but that the average police officer on the street carries nothing more threatening than a truncheon.


I’m afraid, dear reader, that this provoked a rant from our driver.

Firstly: “So that’s why you have so many terrorist attacks!”

Secondly, he asked whether I have heard of the campaigns in the UK for wider gun ownership. When I admitted ignorance, he blamed “the liberals that control your media”.

Thirdly, returning to California, he described his incredulity at the fact that he, both in his capacity as a private citizen and as a professional taxi driver, was not permitted to carry a concealed weapon. He told us how he was once, some years ago, robbed when getting out of his taxi. This would not, he suggested, have happened had he been carrying a concealed weapon.

Fourthly, he told us how Trump wants to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and that this made him a great President. Our driver wasn’t sure that unrestricted concealed carrying of weapons would be allowed any time soon in California, because that state had “crazy laws” and a “corrupt Democratic governor”. He claimed that the Governor “hates guns and doesn’t want anyone to have them”.

Fifthly, he asks if we in the UK had ever heard of Crooked Hillary? “They call her that for a reason,” and one of the reasons is that she wanted to take away all the guns. Which would only lead to endless terrorist shootings like in the UK. He didn’t say that she should be locked up, but he might as well have done.

When I could get a word in edgeways, I pointed out that we had had no recent terrorist shootings in the UK. The driver said I was lying, that there was that arena attack in Manchester when all the kids were shot. I had no chance to point out that guns weren’t involved.

Sixthly, our driver told us that the many school shootings “around the world” were only being effectively tackled in the US, where upstanding citizens with guns shoot dead the shooters.

At this point, we pulled up outside Terminal 2 of Lindbergh Field and Wendy and I barrelled out of the taxi while thanking the driver excessively in a very British manner.

As he drove away, Wendy and I looked at one another and breathed. I think we were both in a sort of mild shock. The conversation made us reflect on how one can’t really have a sensible political conversation with someone whose factual frame of reference is so divorced from reality.

It made me reflect on the threat of “fake news” – a problem long before social media came along, but perhaps amplified by it. Continual exposure to counterfactual stories shifts one’s frame of reference, and make seemingly illogical conclusions entirely rational.

It made me reflect on how much more difficult political life must be these days: how can a politician ever thrive if their views are misrepresented even by their supporters and to their supporters? A politician cannot deliver on a promise they have never made, and cannot defend themselves against false accusations when every correction is percieved as a “cover-up”.

This conversation was something of an epiphany for me, helping me to see how broken this part of our society has become. In decades past, we lived in a world where the means of publication were (to all intents and purposes) controlled, and we could (by and large) distinguish fact from fiction. Today, anyone can publish anything, and few people have the will or means to verify any of it. We’ve moved from a world of limited reliable information to a world where every scrap of information is at our fingertips, but we can’t tell which morsels are fact and which are fiction. And yet, in a democracy, we rely on the population making that distinction accurately in order to make the right decisions for society.

I have no solutions to offer for any of this. In his book, Ryan Holiday suggests that subscription-based news is the answer, as it places value on truth over page views. The BBC likes to present itself as part of the answer. Tech companies sometimes suggest that the algorithmic triangulation of stories can play a role. People with minds more radical than mine might suggest that this is the time to find some other form of democracy than directly voting for a legislative representative.

I’ve no idea who is right. But in the course of one taxi journey, I’ve been convinced more than ever that an answer is urgently needed.


The taxi image at the top of this post is by Ad Meskens. It gives the slightly misleading impression that Wendy and I were travelling in a yellow cab, when in fact we were in more of van. The gun hoslter image in the middle of the post is by Takeshi Mano. Both images are used here under their Creative Commons licences.

This 2,448th post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

The assassination of JFK

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy occurred 22 years before I was born. Nevertheless, his presidency and untimely death are such important moments US history that I think most people feel a connection to them, even those of us who didn’t live through them. Myriad cultural references and endless conspiracy theories have kept the assassination in the collective conscious, while the presidency is still very frequently discussed in the context of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the announcement of the goal to land men on the moon, and members of the wider dynasty demonstrating political ambition.

The events at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Friday 22 November 1963 have been examined and re-examined countless times. Over the years, despite making no special effort, I’ve must have read a huge number of articles about them and have seen countless documentaries, from sober retellings to explorations of outlandish conspiracy theories. I imagine most people are in the same boat.

And so earlier this week, I was intrigued to have the opportunity to visit Dealey Plaza for myself. It wasn’t quite as I had expected.

The former Texas School Book Depository is still there and looks much as it does in the assassination footage. The Sixth Floor has been turned into a museum to the assassination, which I didn’t have chance to visit.

As you can see in the bottom-right of the above photo, the building is marked by a large plaque. This sets out the long history of the site, dealing with the assassination only in the final paragraph, with seemingly permanent scratching acknowledging the conspiracy theories surrounding the “official” version of events.

On the road below, a crudely drawn “X” marks the spot the motorcade was passing as the fatal shot was taken, with part of the much-discussed grassy knoll immediately behind it. The road remains a rather busy traffic thoroughfare, albeit one with random strangers standing and gawping from the pavement (including me).

My over-riding impression was that the whole site was far smaller than I had imagined it to be. Dealey Plaza itself wasn’t very big, and the key locations are within a roughly 50m square. I always had in mind that the shots fired had to travel quite a long way to meet their mark, much like the Hollywood trope of the long-range sniper. In fact, everything was really rather close together. Despite thinking that I had a good idea of what had happened, my mental image was completely wrong.

Until I visited, I had no idea there was a memorial plaza to Kennedy a short distance away. The actual memorial takes the form of a sort of concrete screen, intended to be suggestive of a sort of open tomb.

In the centre is an empty plinth.

This caught me a bit off guard. Despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the design, standing alone in an almost silent enclave in the centre of a very busy city with nothing to look at but the absence of a revered man is really quite a moving experience. The memorial was funded through contributions from thousands of individual citizens of Dallas, in a manner that seems both poignant and somehow dated: erecting a monument by public subscription feels like something that happened in the Victorian era more than the 1970s. Perhaps it’s due for a come-back.

I’m glad I visited, and feel like the visit has given me a new perspective on an important event of the 20th century. But at the same time, I have to confess that it all feels a little bit wrong to me. This is the scene of one of the most notorious murders of our time, and it feels a little bit like it has been turned into a tourist attraction. There is a even a café and gift shop. I’m one of the tourists, and appreciate the hypocrisy of this stance, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t how anyone would want to be remembered. Would anybody really want such a focus on their death as opposed to their life? Why would anyone want to be remembered as the victim of their own murder, as opposed to being remembered for their lifetime of achievements?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the subject would have wanted. Perhaps it is important to use the attraction of the historical site to make sure that people are educated about the historical event—and if someone makes a profit as a result, then that’s just the American way. But I have to confess that my feelings of interest and intrigued as I wandered round were mixed with a slight feeling of ickiness. Still, I’m glad I visited.


The picture of JFK at the top of this post is in the public domain. The others are all my own.

This 2,447th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .




The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. Information about cookies and the handling of emails submitted for the 'new posts by email' service can be found in the privacy policy. This site uses affiliate links: if you buy something via a link on this site, I might get a small percentage in commission. Here's hoping.