Scribblings and blether and haver

Orwell Long List 2019

out of 15 books read.

I have, rather belatedly, given the 2020 list will likely appear next month, embarked on a small project to read, reflect, and write about all the books on the Orwell Long List from 2019. There are 15 of them and I will add links and (ticks) as I get through them. They are tagged ‘Orwell Long List 2019’ as well.


February 2020 reading list

A quiet month here on the blog, especially notable when the last post was January’s reading list… I’ve been busy enough reading and here are the books for the past month:

  • Watching the Door: A Memoir 1971-78 by Kevin Myers
  • Pills, Powder, and Smoke by Antony Loewenstein
  • How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay
  • Still You Sleep by Kate Vane°
  • The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara
  • Rose’s Strategy of Preventive Medicine by Geoffrey Rose
  • Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
  • Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie
  • Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
  • The Growth Delusion by David Pilling

I’d have to say that my top recommendation from this month would almost certainly have to be Mindf*ck by Wylie. The importance of the Cambridge Analytica story can’t be under-estimated and I’m very relieved to have stepped back from Facebook et al. Watching the Door was remarkable. I learned plenty from Impossible Conversations, though I don’t think the format is ideal for audiobook as it would be better to absorb the book over a longer period. Bregman was excellent and thought-provoking and Klein’s Why We’re Polarized opened up another window to see our current political landscape. If you are a fan of Ha-Joon Chang (I am) then Pilling’s The Growth Delusion is similarly excellent and you’ll never listen to broadcasters talk about GDP again without shouting at the television or radio.

January 2020 reading list

Nothing too complicated about this. Here are the books I’ve got through in January 2020. As usual there is a mix of audiobooks, ebooks, and good old fashioned hardcopy.

I’ve provided some links above when I’ve written something about them. I don’t use Amazon or affiliate links so click away with impunity. These span some seriously varied genres so it is hard to nominate a favourite. As a general rule, the ones I write about are usually the ones that have had most impact. The book I’ve found myself recommending the most and talking about has been Narconomics. I was shocked by Catch and Kill and I loved reading Tilman again after many years away from him. I think I would read a shopping list if it was written in Chang’s wonderfully accessible style and Bliss’s book was instructive in showing how science can be written with a wonderfully human, sidelong gaze.

Narconomics by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics has been on my reading list for a long time now and I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner. It’s a sharp analysis, informed and informative, and I took a tremendous amount away from it. It reinforced some important points around the global drug market. Wainwright covers in some detail° the expense and largely futile policing of the drugs trade. In an early example, he takes us through the economics of destroying large amounts of the coca crop and how this has almost no impact on the final price for the consumer. Until then the policy of destroying the source of the drug seems to be entirely logical yet Wainwright dismantles it so comprehensively you are left wondering how you ever believed it in the first place.

The concept of the hard drugs market as being relatively inelastic is an important one. Reductions in supply don’t necessarily shift demand. Attacking the supply-side of the industry has very little impact, particularly in early links of the chain. Interestingly, one of the biggest changes in heroin use, in one case study, was the large-scale adoption of heroin assisted treatment in Switzerland. In effect, it reduced the market, but it also took out the low-level dealers with dramatic reductions in overall usage.

It is also worth reiterating an important point about the drugs debate. It is important to acknowledge the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation. The countries where drugs are used (UK, USA etc) are keen to lay the blame for the problem on the supply side with Johnny Foreigner. We need to be mindful that a half-baked decriminalisation could result in unintended consequences. It will not necessarily have the same effect as full legalisation and regulation. The murders, the deaths, and all the misery inflicted through the organised crime networks that supply the drugs may continue depending on the exact nature of the changes. Decriminalisation may work for the drug-consuming rich nations while entrenching violence and poverty in the drug producing and transit countries.

The move towards cannabis legalisation continues. Wainwright also explores this using economic principles and the often complex, not always intuitive, impact it can have on drug markets. There is a fascinating opportunity with legal cannabis production to ensure it is socially just. Handing over the industry and the profits to corporate regimes would be a mistake – try this article in The Correspondent° for more on empowering people through Big Marijuana.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Harvey Weinstein is appearing on television regularly as his trial continues. He looks broken and frail, a shell of a man, but I find it easy to harden my heart and watch, with grim satisfaction, some semblance of the justice process playing out. Before reading this, I understood the gist of the story but I hadn’t read exhaustive accounts in the mainstream media. In Catch and Kill°, Farrow lays it all down for inspection.

In some ways, the pictures of Weinstein now remind me of a few hard men I met when doing prison medicine. Only they weren’t hard men any more. They were weakened, spent, and preyed upon. They had meted out some violence in their time and were now, in their turn, feeling the threat. The difference is that Weinstein is facing appropriate legal actions and not some extra-judicial beating. And perhaps my biggest emotion when seeing Weinstein looking so elderly is one of regret. It has taken too many years and too many victims to get to this stage.

Catch and Kill portrays Weinstein as a predator and a man who deserves to face the full weight of the justice system pressing down on him. The book grimly details Weinstein’s modus operandi and Farrow’s dogged, if not plain obsessive, pursuit of the story. Farrow’s descriptions of the establishment, “the great white predators”°, closing ranks is enough to make you retch. Farrow also records in the book how he was trailed and investigated by a shadowy Israeli security company, a “private Mossad”, employed by Weinstein. NBC do not come out of it well. Actually, very few do. Perhaps only the women who went through it and the ones who were able to steel themselves to resist, to tell their story. And, Farrow as well, he certainly went through the wringer.

One small point, but it needs to be mentioned. I listened to the audiobooks and I have no idea what the producers were thinking of in letting Farrow do the accents. You will read many reviews commenting on it. The only thing I can say is that they did, as the book went on, grate less and less, and the story is too compelling, too astonishing, to even consider sacking it. Don’t let it stop you reading this important book.

A note

I’m keeping it simple and focused on the writing but I have added a few tags for some themes.

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The pleasure of unexpected snow

It was, completely unexpectedly, and rather joyfully, snowy today. I stumbled out of bed in the half-light and was surprised to see snow nestling, Dickensian style, on the skylight window. Maybe I just hadn’t really been paying attention to the forecast.

It wasn’t freezing outside and underneath it was rather muddy but the dogs were ecstatic to be out, frolicking around, and it was the puppy’s first experience of snow. Both dogs ended up with mutiple globes of snow dangling from the back of their legs.


This is the track that takes you up to Winder from Howgill Lane. Dead ahead is the the Nab, not much more than a flank with a pseudo-summit that leads up to Arant Haw. I trudged up Winder today. No running for me as my right knee is unhappy with life, aching like hell and with some tenderness on the medial joint line that has sprung up out of the blue. I didn’t tweak it and it didn’t even start hurting during a run. It all just kicked off a few hours after a gentle run on the flat. Odd. I’m hoping it’s trivial and it just needs a few days to calm down. In that regard, the snow is entirely welcome as walking doesn’t feel like such as drag when you are in the snow and any real running isn’t an option in any case.


The odd half light of snow is so hard to capture. I almost always prefer black and white in any case (it’s a colour blindness thing°). The view is south east from the summit of Winder — the trig point is just out of shot on the left — and the Frostrow Fells are the first line of lower hills with Dentdale sitting just in behind.


And, of course, this is the wider summit view. Behind the trig point is one of those 360° observation points that maps out the horizon and allows you to spot and identify all the surrounding hills and landmarks.

The winter days are more or less at their shortest now and the dark mornings have been pressing in. The December solstice is in a few days. I also have in mind the sinusoidal curve of day length — there isn’t much change at this time of year and it will be a few weeks before the length of the days starts to shift significantly and we feel the difference. Yet, it’s always a good time when we pass through the solstice and a weekend morning with snow is a welcome bonus.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

This is a slim volume, made up of seven essays, by Solnit. The first, and most well known, is the 2008 titular essay that, while not using the term itself, helped inspire the recognition of ‘mansplaining’. The key passage, summing up the concern, is here:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Some men.”

It’s never going to be comfortable, as a man, reading these essays but Solnit’s feminism is inclusive. Solnit talks about that term ‘mansplaining’ and how she is not super-keen on it, with suggestions of an inherent male flaw, rather than recognising it is an inappropriate behaviour. Near the end, in the essay Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force she says:

“I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear more thought.”

I’m wholeheartedly on board with this but one is always treading a fine line. There is an ever-present risk that flagging problems for men in culture looks like it is, again, ignoring women. And this is a recurring theme in Solnit’s essays – the invisible women (the title, of course, of Caroline Criado-Perez’s book on the gender data gap). Yet, if men engage in a discussion about feminism, we have to be hyper-aware of the risk of falling into the trap of explaining, of mansplaining. This doesn’t have to be a major problem, most of the time we just need to do a bit more listening, and a little less talking. Which is almost certainly good advice for life generally.

I don’t believe we (men, I mean) so should be in the slightest bit concerned about feminism. Certainly not the movement Solnit advocates. A couple of her quotes to illustrate:

“Feminism is an endeavour to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends.”

“Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.”

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

I have highlighted a remarkable number of passages in this book and it still feels like it glanced off the surface, like some wayward missile with too low a trajectory and too much speed. With Hitchens at his best they rush at you with tremendous velocity and force.

At other times, in other essays, I simply can’t parse Hitchens. I don’t have the classics background or the deep knowledge of the literature to cope. Letters to a Young Contrarian° is accessible and because of the nature of the book it is a generous seam to mine for Hitchens quotations. It’s a book, and they are increasingly rare, in my ‘read again’ pile.

Here are my selected quotes:

“There were many who retained the unfashionable hope of changing the world for the better and (which is not quite the same thing) of living a life that would be, as far as possible, self-determined.”

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

“The term “intellectual” was originally coined by those in France who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They thought that they were defending an organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism, and they deployed this contemptuous word against those they regarded as the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound.”

“It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence.”

“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.”

“You must feel not that you want to but that you have to. It’s worth emphasising, too, because there is a relationship, inexact to be sure but a relationship, between this desire or need and the ambition to rely upon internal exile, or dissent; the decision to live at a slight acute angle to society.”

“This would be idiocy in its pejorative sense; the Athenians originally employed the term more lightly, defining as idiotis any man who was blandly indifferent to public affairs.” “

“On Sigmund Freud’s memorial in Vienna appear the words: “The voice of reason is small, but very persistent.”

“George Orwell said that the prime responsibility lay in being able to tell people what they did not wish to hear.”

“Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.”

“Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are repackaged for Westerners as therapy, and platitudes or tautologies masquerade as wisdom.”

“Pyotr Kropotkin might have been rather a rarefied anarchist but he had a point when he said that if only one man has the truth, that’s enough.”

“Our standard for these things is subject to its own Gresham’s Law:° not only does it recognise the bogus but it overlooks and excludes the genuine.”

“The fish rots from the head in such matters”

“This depressing discovery need not blind us to the true moral, which is that everybody can do something, and that the role of dissident is not, and should not be, a claim of membership in a communion of saints.”

“the human race may be inherently individualistic and even narcissistic but in the mass it is quite easy to control.”

“The socialist movement enabled universal suffrage, the imposition of limits upon exploitation, and the independence of colonial and subject populations. Where it succeeded, one can be proud of it.”

“Fatalism and piety were the least of it; this was cynicism allied to utilitarianism. Don’t let yourself forget it, but try and profit also from the hard experience of those who contested the old conditions and, in a word or phrase, don’t allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded.”

“The crucial distinction between systems, he said, was no longer ideological. The main political difference was between those who did, and those who did not, think that the citizen could—or should—be “the property of the state.””

“Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged . . . ”) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs.”

“Joseph Heller knew how the need to belong, and the need for security, can make people accept lethal and stupid conditions, and then act as if they had imposed them on themselves.”

“In some ways I feel sorry for racists and for religious fanatics, because they so much miss the point of being human, and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart, and decide to hate them all the more, because of the misery they inflict and because of the contemptible excuses they advance for doing so.”

“Irony, says Czeslaw Milosz in his poem Not This Way, is “the glory of slaves”: the sharp aside and the witty nuance are the consolation of the losers and are the one thing that pomp and power can do nothing about.”

“There are times when one wants to hold society’s feet to the fire, and to force a confrontation, and to avoid the blandishments of those who always call upon everyone to “lighten up” and change the subject.”

“Dante was a sectarian and a mystic but he was right to reserve one of the fieriest corners of his inferno for those who, in a time of moral crisis, try to stay neutral.”

“However, you should get and read Joe Sacco’s cartoon-history Safe Area Goražde°, to which I was honored to contribute an introduction.”

“The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism.”

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.”

“Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

“Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

Missing the Anthropocene point

The advert on the back of Private Eye this week features a watch from the company, Christopher Ward. The watch is the C65 Anthropocene and it comes in at £995 in its cheapest version.° Apparently: “Inspired by the Scottish Opera’s ‘Anthropocene’, this 300-piece limited edition integrates the production’s icy wilderness setting into its very design.” Well, let me speak plainly: what a load of absolute bollocks. For a start, and this is mostly an aside, this is the kind of pretentious imagery that makes me want to gouge out my own eyes.

But it’s worse than fluffy PR hype. Let’s be clear, high-end luxury watches are about blatant consumption and excess. Ironically, Christopher Ward’s thrust is that they are, in fact, affordable when compared with the ultra-oligarchal end of the market. It’s a marker of how far we’ve distorted consumption when spending £1000 on a watch is positioned as reasonable. The main headline for the advert is Product of the environment. Yes, like everything is of course, and that’s rather the point isn’t it? We wouldn’t be in the Anthropocene if we hadn’t pursued our boundless ambition to produce from the natural resources we have at our disposal.

Apparently 5% of the price will go to conservation charities and this virtue-signalling is currently commonplace in the premium watch market.° We should call it out for what it is: cynical marketing that flags the rank hypocrisy of manufacturers. I don’t qualify as an environmentalist, I understand that there are many changes I still need to make to my life to help with sustainability, and doubtless there are many luxury goods I have that I could forego. However, I’m still sufficiently grounded in reality to recognise that conflating expensive watches with environmentalism is vomit-inducing fakery and naked deceit.

More on email – geeking out with MailMate

One of my basic beliefs about email is that the key to success is to be online for the minimum possible time. You treat it the same as a physical mailbox. You wouldn’t stand beside your letterbox doing the work that was received in the letters. You have to treat it as a collection point. Get in, get out. Do the work. Go back later. Preferably just once or twice a day. You are still communicating fast compared to the old snail mail but you can achieve some balance with competing demands on your time.

The most heinous email crime one can commit is to work out of one’s inbox when it’s still hitched to the open streams of the internet. This approach drives my views on the apps I use to manage my email. The ability to work offline is essential and makes browser-based email a bit of a loser. It was just three weeks ago when I was bemoaning° this missing feature and I’ve just discovered a rather wonderful email app for Mac, MailMate.° It also has a lightning fast structure and even allowing for some initial set up it is going to save me a lot of time.

Just to reiterate: you can’t take care of the work that comes into your inbox if you are forever pausing to look at the next email as it pings. As well as the evidence around the cognitive impact, it’s a psychological torture device. A bit like working in certain branches of medicine, say emergency medicine, where the work never stops flowing in. You never get to the end of the work, the doors never close, but at least you do get to the end of your shift. With email people don’t even have a virtual clocking off time. They just plough on, wondering why they are so stressed.

Back to MailMate. It has a spartan appearance and you have to write your replies in plain text and Markdown – though the app handles HTML incredibly well and styles the outgoing emails as needed. I realise this will scare some people off but it is straightforward. The developer also makes a compelling case.° And, really, how many emails do you send with anything more than very occasional smear of italics or bold? MailMate does only work for IMAP so if you are locked into the Microsoft Exchange structure then it won’t help. My university email sits within that dreary walled garden but I do have other accounts where I have some more freedom.

MailMate allows you to toggle individual accounts and I have also discovered, and this is wonderfully helpful, that when the email account is offline, you can still send email. MailMate doesn’t block access to the SMTP server and you can still send out. This is completely fantastic. It’s always been a problem that when you collect the email you have to turn it back on again to send – more emails trickle in and, inevitably, you are back on the email dreadmill. I’ve tried to hack all kinds of solutions for this and MailMate just bakes it in.

I made a couple of tweaks to how it works for me. There are good instructions at the site but there’s a potted summary in the next two sub-headings.

Turn on your app in an offline state

If you turn Outlook to offline and close it then it will, when re-opened, still be offline. No problem there. It does mean you have to remember to do it each time – and I have conditioned myself to make it a habit. MailMate also allows you to tweak the preferences to ensure it always starts offline. I highly recommend this. If you have to grab a file or check the wording of an email for another piece of work you don’t get subjected to your inbox again if you left the app with it still online. It does involve a little bit of work in MailMate and you’ll have to go into the Terminal but it’s simply a matter of cutting and pasting a single line of code to change the default. Restart MailMate once you’ve done it. Easy. Here’s the code to type into the Terminal:

defaults write com.freron.MailMate MmInitialOfflineStateEnabled -bool YES

How to add a global shortcut key that toggles all accounts online and offline

This is the keybindings functionality that MailMate makes it easy to access. Go to the MailMate app in the Finder and right click. Open Package Contents. Then go to Contents/Resources/KeyBindings. I duplicated the Gmail plist file and called it Gmailextra. I then added this line of code under the ‘Only in MailMate’ section of the file:

"~@o" = "toggleOnlineStateOfAllAccounts:";

That now means that Option-Command-o will toggle the online state of all the accounts. Then, you simply type Gmailextra into the Preferences panel in the app:

And, that’s it. The app is now automatically offline when you open it. You can use Option-Command-o to turn everything off and as soon as you have them downloaded then flip to offline again with the same keyboard shortcut. Rinse and repeat.

Happy days.

06 Dec 2019 EDIT: I just updated my MailMate to the new version. The plist file with my Gmailextra settings disappeared in the update so my keyboard shortcut to toggle all accounts on/off was broken. I added it again, as per my own instructions, and all is well.

Left and right: Click bait book titles

There is not much doubt that click bait book titles are in vogue. They tend to be provocative, Buzzfeed inspired, and just like standard click bait they don’t necessarily reflect the content of the actual book. My most recommended book this month is James O’Brien’s How to Be Right… in a world gone wrong.° O’Brien is a radio chat show host on LBC° and he’s very left wing. Unusual in the world of ‘shock jocks’. His book is brilliant at walking through the arguments people use to ram home their points around race, migration, Islamophobia, feminism and, of course, Brexit. He carefully and comprehensively demolishes them and shows us how to do it too. His techniques will, naturally, work for any political position and he is incredibly ineffective at pushing people further to justify their position. In all the examples in the book they quickly fall apart. It is compelling.

He uses transcripts (or recollections of them) in the book and it works brilliantly in audiobook form. I have a slight fear of authors reading their own work. Audiobook narration is not easy and butchering it can destroy the experience. This is one where I’m happy to report the opposite. I can’t imagine this book working without O’Brien’s voice as he narrates his work and recreates the debates with the angry callers. I’m still not that keen on the title. It isn’t really about being right in the sense of besting someone. It could be argued it is about being ‘right’ in the sense of ensuring one’s arguments are robust, coherent and consistent with one’s experience and the evidence available. O’Brien excels in deconstructing opinions that can’t meet these criteria. (It is possible my enjoyment of this book is a form of bias as well – O’Brien’s views are a very close fit with my own.) I’ll be listening again in the near future.

Signalling to Facebook

If you want to move a little further away from Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg then you may wish to consider giving up WhatsApp. It was acquired by the Big F in 2014 and they paid a cool US$19 billion.

The best alternative I have found is Signal app.° It is an open source project that is supported by grants and by donations. There is no profit motive and it’s there to support the users. It works beautifully on my old iPhone, has an Android app, and the desktop app works well too. It was one of WhatsApp founders, Brian Acton, who set up the Signal Foundation and developed Signal after he left WhatsApp in 2017. In fact, it’s the end-to-end encryption technology of Signal that provides the privacy backbone in WhatsApp.

I don’t feel that concerns about my privacy are that great. I don’t have any concerns that the government is going to hack me. And, as Signal makes clear, WhatsApp is very secure – though it does attract more hackers’ attention than other platforms. I just think Facebook’s completely dominance of this market is damaging. Facebook is, in this article from Wired°, “a monopsonist of media attention”. I’m hoping Elizabeth Warren gets her wish and breaks up Facebook. Meantime, I’m just doing my bit to break out of the Facebook stranglehold and Signal makes it an easy decision.

Home visits and GPs

There is just one story that is getting bandied around in GP circles this week. It’s the Kent Local Medical Committee (LMC) motion,° debated at the national meeting, that home visits should be removed from core contract work.

Now, I’ve little sympathy for the heart-tugging nostalgic view of general practice that is peddled by dewy-eyed traditionalists. But, really, what on earth were they thinking? It takes about 30 seconds to spot the flaws in this suggestion. It fragments care, disrupts continuity, and it wages its effect on the most vulnerable people in society. It throws the housebound, disabled, and terminally ill under the bus. Did we learn nothing from the 2004 contract when we gave up out of hours care? The splintering of primary care into separate pockets damages services and will always have a disproportionate impact on the most needy.

I’m all for radical thinking and I appreciate that GPs are hard-pressed but this is so desperate I wonder if it is incredibly Machiavellian. Bear with me, I’m trying to be charitable. Maybe it’s actually a clever way of highlighting how parlous the situation is, that GPs would even countenance such a policy. It might yet have that effect, and things are undeniably hard, but this doesn’t seem conspiratorial. It has cock-up written all over it.

Taking notes on audiobooks

Audiobooks are big business. I’ve been listening to a lot of them this year and the combination of my regular driving commute and running means I get through them quickly. I’ve developed my own system for taking notes when reading and it’s an important part of my reading process. I’ll detail that another time but here’s my immediate problem: how do you capture notes and thoughts when listening to an audiobook?

It’s straightforward if you are sitting down and listening as you can keep a notebook handy. However, one of the attractions of audiobooks is that they are consumed while you are doing other things. Usually I’m driving but I have started listening when out for a walk or sometimes a run.

So, I’ve been mulling over the possibilities.

Just use your usual system

Stop what you are doing and make a note using your preferred medium. Not very handy when engaged in some activity but I do fall back on this when I can.

Dictating notes

It’s an audio medium so using audio to record notes has some logic. There are some options here. You can use the phone that is playing the audiobook to record a voice memo. It may involve hitting some buttons if you don’t have a plan. I’ve never been happy to try this when driving as any fiddling with buttons is almost certainly not legal and definitely unsafe. It can be done without a massive fuss when out walking although it is disruptive when running.

So a no-hands system is needed. I have tried keeping a dictaphone in the car and I have found it quite straightforward to use for the occasional quick note. It does involve fiddling with a device (so isn’t really no-hands), though with mine I can do this without even looking at it. Being safe is clearly the priority. For complete hands-free safety then Siri (or equivalent) could be the way forward. It is possible to set up Siri to open an app like Bear and one can just dictate directly into that. (Although I have discovered that when CarPlay is enabled then Siri won’t allow it.) Alternatively, it is even easier to get Siri to open a voice memo and speak your thoughts. I use the voice memo option as I think it reduces any temptation to look at the screen. The voice memo is also super-easy if you are out walking or running with headphones that have a microphone.

Make a bookmark

It is possible in some audiobook apps, and the Audible one does this, to press a button and make a bookmark. I use the Bound app for iOS° for DRM-free audiobooks as it has a bookmark function. This is just the digital audio equivalent of turning over the corner of a page and you have to come back later and re-listen to the section and take any notes. This is quick and easy but I have found that I’ve been rubbish at going back and re-listening.

None of these are hugely easy and they often risk additional distractions. As well as the obvious safety concerns I also find it jolts me out of my reverie – both from the book and the activity. More and more I’m not worrying about notes and treating audiobooks as a different experience to reading. I’m not trying to replicate the note taking. If that truly bugs you then you could stick to books that might not need any notes or just let them wash over you. Fiction is the obvious example where you’re less likely to want to take notes. I realise this is unsatisfactory but if I genuinely have an insight while listening to an audiobook then I’m finding it sticks with me long enough to get captured later.

A passing thought on the D-word

What is it about the verb “to die” and the word “death”? In recent weeks and months I find myself more and more distracted by the inability of our journalists, politicians, or anyone on the media, to state plainly that someone has died. They have, more often than not, ‘passed away’. I heard a DJ on Radio 2 do it earlier in the week and, this evening, I even heard the newsreader on BBC 5 Live refer to a ‘passing’ to avoid using the word, death.

We are tiptoeing around death. There seems to be a self-imposed ban, a moratorium, if you will, on the D-words. I don’t want to over-play it but is it related to our increasing need to cure every ill, our inability to tolerate any ailment? We can’t face our own mortality in an age of individualism. Death is a dirty word. I spent part of the afternoon re-reading a Belgian paper, which will be published this coming week in BJGP Open, that extends the debate around euthanasia and dementia. Belgium and the Netherlands are two countries who have already enacted legislation. Yet, how can we possibly have a sensible conversation in the UK about death and one’s right to choose, to exercise control, if we’re unable to even speak its name?

Doing one thing

Wilf Taylor’s Passage, Lancaster Hole

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who is attributed with the quote: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” She was a political figure in her own right and most prominently was First Lady of the United States for over 12 years until April 1945.

It wasn’t difficult to come up with my one thing today.

I got invited along on a caving trip to the Ease Gill Caverns. The strange thing about this is that, despite living locally for well over a decade, I had no idea about this cave system. It’s the longest system in the UK° coming in at around 41 miles. It’s just a few miles from my home. The entrance involved a 34m abseil down a shaft known as Lancaster Hole. It’s a little difficult to describe the route after that. Mainly because, as a caving novice generally, and very much new to the Ease Gill Caverns I had only a vague notion of where we were. Apparently though, according to one website,° the “Lancaster Hole through trip is a classic.” This seems to involve finishing at a place called Wretched Rabbit while we exited via the ‘Manchester Bypass’.

It was impressive. And, I’m certainly not ‘cave-fit’ with the whole experience offering a full body workout. The last hour was a lot more physical and there was a lot of scrambling around and over greasy boulders, some tight crawling at times, and much thrutching, bridging, and cursing as we gradually covered ourselves in mud from head to toe. There was one, er, interesting traverse on a slippery shelf above a large drop, but we had the reassurance of fixed ropes and ‘cow’s tails’ to clip into them. By caving standards I don’t think any of the crawls would be regarded as tight but they didn’t feel too loose either. I had to consciously work to suppress any bubbling panic.

It could certainly be parked in the ‘scary’ slot today but it never got out of shape. The “scary” part of Roosevelt’s sentiment feels like it just about nudging ourselves out of our comfort zones. It doesn’t need to be a new sport, especially one, if you’ll pardon the pun, is rather niche. Perhaps the best aspect was the chance to spend a few hours with some like-minded people who I got to know a bit better. I will ache for a week though.

Image by Langcliffe under CC-BY-4.0

Black Friday and the Diderot effect

Black Friday, much like Christmas, has gradually extended in scope. The word “Friday” is doing some heavy lifting to justify the sales blitzkreig that will sweep over us for a fortnight. This is, patently, for no other reason than to extend the opportunity for us to be parted with our money and accumulate more stuff. Scarcity may have some economic value but it is not, so it seems, as effective as a relentless dogged exposure to the ‘deals’ on offer.

If you do find yourself eyeing up the latest Black Friday bargains then I’d point you towards the Diderot effect.° The adverse consequences of the Diderot effect happen when you buy something that isn’t complementary to one’s life. The risk is that your spending then escalates as you seek more products to match this item and you lose control. Frenchman Diderot wrote, around 250 years ago, an essay with the wonderfully humdrum title: Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.° He tells the sorry tale of how a smart new scarlet dressing gown left him feeling rather dissatisfied with the other rather tawdry and threadbare possessions in his life. He went on a spree and accumulated debts. Actually, the essay is not a terribly easy read and the popularisation of the term is thanks to an anthropologist, Grant McCracken.

The point, however, is well made. The culture of consumerism is exemplified by Black Friday. We are being manipulated. It is intrusive. And, as well as the unsustainable environmental costs, it doesn’t even make us happy.

Recently, I found myself coveting a smartwatch. A GPS device that could tell me how far I had run, my heart rate, and a million and one other metrics. The new Garmin Fenix 6 caught my eye and I perused the reviews, making my decision on which one I should get. Then, I caught myself. I don’t need one of these. I don’t think it will make me life better. I have a perfectly serviceable watch and I’m not going to get more joy from my running by measuring it in any more detail than I already do. One of the best things one can do to avoid getting sucked in is to avoid advertising. Or, if you are like me, develop strongly contrarian responses when exposed to advertising. The moment I realised I didn’t need a Garmin Fenix 6 was when I saw a TV advert with Ant Middleton° trying to sell it to me. He’s a picture of rugged masculinity, battling the elements with his Garmin. Absolute fucking bullshit, I thought. I’ll stick with my Casio watch.

My Casio is the W-735H version. I would have the wonderfully light and very retro Casio F-91W° but I found the alarm was sometimes lost on me and the light is rubbish. The W-735H can usually be found for under £20, and it has a vibrating alarm that has never failed to wake me. It also has a clear light that is easy to read in bed at night. (Actually, I have to cup it with my hand to avoid dazzling my wife.) What more do I need?

As Seneca said: “It was nature’s intention that there should be no great need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy”.


I have taken another small step today towards minimising the Google effect in my life. I was an early adopter of Gmail in 2006 (back in the days when it was still Googlemail) and I remember a medical student being kind enough to send me an invite to get me into the system before it was opened up. Over the past year I’ve been more and more concerned, admittedly in a low level way, about the impact of the tech giants. Their absolute dominance and cavalier approach to privacy should unnerve us all.

The knee-jerk response to concerns about privacy is to cast it back to the person. The suggestion being that ‘if you are doing nothing wrong’ then you should have nothing to fear. This seems to stem from a view that the tech corporates are beneficent giants. They are not. It’s become more and more apparent that they are no different to any profit-seeking corporation. They avoid tax in the same way. They have had little compunction in breaching privacy of users to maximise their income, only rowing back when the tide of opinion has risen to threaten them. They have allowed bad actors to use our data to influence our politics and undermine our democracies. We should all be alarmed.

Marching on the streets is hardly proportionate but we can tweak our lives to reduce our dependence on them. I gave up social media but I appreciate that is not for everyone. You could stop using the Google search engine: DuckDuckGo° and° are very good alternatives and have policies tailored around privacy. Use Firefox° rather than Google’s Chrome browser. And, give up using Gmail. I’ve now moved my work and personal email addresses to Fastmail.° I do have to pay but when you consider the amount of time spent on email it feels like a reasonable cost. It’s quick, they have excellent customer service, and I’ve extricated myself from the Google infrastructure.

Best book with an awful title

First, I should say that I like this book. I like it a lot. So much so, I’ve read it three times. And, at my age, books have to work damn hard to get a re-read.

Still, my winner for Best book with an awful title is: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

I think the title gives entirely the wrong impression. It comes from a quote by Steve Martin, the comedian, and it is perfectly appropriate, but when it stands alone as a title I am not sure it’s hitting the spot. It just gives this rather unsatisfactory aura of self fulfilment by belief. That, somehow, if you are magical enough then you will get your reward.

It is particularly unfortunate that I get that vibe from this title because it’s almost entirely the antithesis of Newport’s book. He spends considerable time debunking the “follow your passion” approach to life and instead advocates for a much more workman-like approach. He makes the case that the passion that many people have comes from the slow accumulation of skill and experience. It grows from a deep understanding of the niche and an engagement with the subject that simply doesn’t happen without, commonly, many years of work. Yes, these people are “good”, as the title suggests, but it doesn’t even necessarily mean you will then garner some kind of externally validated success. However, it’s likely you will, either way, get personal satisfaction.

The book is aimed at those who are looking to develop a career but there is still a lot of resonance for me. Perhaps more. It’s easy in many careers to cast around looking for the next thing. It’s an easy trap for the portfolio GP. The desire to move through the jobs onto the next and ‘better’ thing is a common trait. In many industries, and academia is no exception, we’re often managed by these people. And, the overwhelming feeling is that they rarely get good at their jobs. They simply don’t stay in them long enough. Sometimes it is better to stay, keep improving, and let one’s passion grow.

Notes on a fell race: Ring of Steall 2017

R unning up hills is not most people’s cup of tea. I’m not sure if I will do another fell race. The Ring of Steall Skyrace was one of the most painful runs I have had in a long time. Memory is an unreliable indicator for this sort of pain. The temptation is to shake it off and come back next year. Not me. This one didn’t even count as Type 2 fun.° My climb up the second 1000m ascent from Glen Nevis was as humbling a physical experience as I’ve had. Writing this two years later and it still smarts.

The hills above Glen Nevis were among my very first experiences of Munros when a mate and I made a summer trip circa 1989. Actually, my very first Munro was a winter ascent, in crampons, of Sgùrr nan Gillean° on the Skye ridge but that’s a different story. I remember walking the Ring of Steall on a long glorious summer day and being thrilled with the journey and the adventure of it. The Ring of Steall does, it have to be said, lack the aesthetic qualities of a natural horseshoe walk with the start situated in Kinlochleven. A quick glance at the profile will tell you all you to know. In its 29km it packs in 2500m of climbing as, Grand Old Duke of York style, it marches you up and down again.

The race centre in the Leven Hall in Kinlochleven was well organised. We got there the night before the race at 7pm and were ushered around in 20 minutes. First, we had our kit checked. Not every single item was scrutinised but they looked at the hooded jacket, waterproof trousers, and our shoes. Tick, tick, tick. A stamp on the hand and we moved to the next table in the hall. They did a photo ID check and we were given an additional race briefing sheet and our maps. Our dibbers were strapped to our wrists. We then shuffled around and got our race numbers and a GPS tracker was taped to our race sacs. We were stood up against a wall and had our photos taken. Cue general macabre comments about body identification. Finally, we got our T shirts and I collected a little bivvy bag I had pre-ordered. That was it.

We were back the next morning for a civilised 10am start. They got us in the pen at 0945 and after 15 mins of batting off the midges we were set loose. We had 2-3km of road and track to get ourselves onto the start of the hill and the first checkpoint. Then the climbing started in earnest as we made for the first proper checkpoint (CP2) on the Steall Ridge. It was foul underfoot. Black cloying peat over waterlogged ground. I was going fine but worrying that I was going too hard. I was right to be worried. I could already feel myself getting a little rough towards the top of that first climb.

I hit CP2 and two guys were ready to ‘dib’ us in. One of them wearing a pink tutu under his waterproof. Legend. He would still be there when I came back hours later.

The wind was cutting right through us and once past the checkpoint I hastily pulled on my windproof and a pair of gloves. The Devil’s Ridge lay ahead. Unfortunately my own physical demons were lurking just behind me. The rising nausea as I hit the ridge quickly reached critical point. Had I gone too hard? Not drunk enough? I was only 1hr 10mins in, there was no way I should be having problems yet. It was almost like motion sickness, an all-consuming nausea. Looking back I now it’s easy to wonder why I didn’t shake it off, didn’t just eat, drink and get on with it. But if you’ve been laid low with proper sea sickness you will know the feeling. Utter lethargy was blanketing me. I was heavy-lidded and felt sedated. I slowed to a crawl up the hills. The weird part of the experience is that almost as soon as I was on the flat, and certainly going downhill, the worse of it faded away. I was getting passed on every hill but regaining every time we went down again.

The ridge was relatively short and we were then faced with the long descent into Glen Nevis to CP5. A drop of 1000m all laid out before us. It was magnificent but thighs were battered.

The descent into Glen Nevis
The descent into Glen Nevis

My stomach wasn’t happy at CP5 but I knew I had to eat. I got a cup of coke and had a few crisps. I also pulled out half of the honey sandwich I had made that morning. I set off from the checkpoint and slowly munched it at walking pace. Better just to keep moving. Unfortunately, the food didn’t transform me. The nausea was still there and rearing its head whenever I hit a hill. I mostly stuck to a fast walk uphill. Glen Nevis came to an end with a slithering peaty slide back down to the river. We had to wade the river. The slope back up to the top of the ridge kicked up in front of us. The climb back to the top of An Gearanach beckoned.

And so began one of the more miserable 70 minutes I have, er, enjoyed in the hills for many years. I’ve probably had worse but they were all 15-20 years ago. It was excruciating. The nausea blanketed me. Other runners, though to be fair we were all walkers now, streamed past. I lost count. Dozens of them. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted someone to see how I felt. I wanted to say that I would be fine if this sickness could just go. I simply kept going. That was the one thing I couldn’t face. Stopping. If I stopped moving then it was never going to end. If I kept putting one foot in front of the next then it had to finish at some point.

Bill Tilman memorably described this disorder as Tilman’s Foot.° The inability to put one foot in front of the other. Every step is a small victory. I was now aware that my fluid and calories intake for the run was woefully inadequate. I couldn’t even drink. If I started retching then I was certain I couldn’t take another step. I would have to retreat in ignominious shame to CP5 and abandon.

I was heading up, heading on, but it felt like the most fragile progress. A precarious progress. A false summit and I looked west to the Devils’ Ridge we had already traversed. I could see we were still well short of the same height. Spirits sunk. I could have wept. I wanted to give up. I was trapped in this earth-bound manufactured hell. More people passed.

Then, I heard the shouting. The marshall at CP7 was hollering and whooping whenever anyone crested the ridge. I stood there almost mute. I told her I was nauseated. She offered some sage advice. God knows what it was. I knew it was futile. But at least I had some flat and some downhill to ease the way.

The cold was bitter now. I wondered how aged I was as I pulled on 25-year-old dachstein mitts and several 20-somethings passed in shorts and T-shirts. The cold was grinding my bones. One young blonde girl in a startling yellow T shirt and shorts had come past me on the way up. I looked at her and wondered how she wasn’t hypothermic. I wasn’t generating any heat with my forward movement. And so it went on. There was some scrambling for interest and it was a blessed relief.

The climbs to the tops were stiff. These are separate Munros so I shouldn’t have been surprised. The last one was brutal. At this point the men and women around me had coalesced into a clot as we tried to push on. I was no longer the slowest. Everyone was fighting their own battle. I have to admit that seeing everyone else suffer gave me hope. What a bastard I am. I had felt like the only one on the earlier climb but the will to live was seeping back into me. One guy paused to stretch a cramping hip.

Then, glorious relief. The final summit of Am Bodach. Now it was all downhill. And immediately, my nausea eased and I found my rhythm. I passed people. I hailed, as a long-lost friend, the legend in the tutu marshalling at CP2 and plunged down the hillside to Kinlochleven. It was foul. Bog, bog and more bog. But, I kept passing runners. I like running downhill. The final stretches of trail were more agony but it was too near the end to hurt as much. Thankfully the road run was barely a kilometre. I jogged it in. I was feeling chipper. I was going to live through this one. I smiled at the passers-by. I willed myself to enjoy it. I crossed the line in 6hr 49 mins 48 secs