Scribblings and blether and haver

June 2020 reading list

Well it was a much better month than May and I found my groove again. There are some real gems here that would have me enthusing in any given month. I’ll try to tackle them individually with posts in the coming weeks. Here’s the June list.

  • Don’t Be Evil by Rana Faroohar
  • You Talking to Me by Sam Leith
  • Parliament Ltd by Martin Williams
  • Our Final Warning by Mark Lynas
  • How to Survive a Plague by David France
  • The NHS at 70: A Living History by Ellen Welch
  • The COVID-19 Catastrophe by Richard Horton
  • Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
  • You Are Not Human by Simon Lancaster
  • The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
  • The Candy Machine by Tom Feiling
  • Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

Recommendation of the Month

Don’t Be Evil is a good run through of the problems at Google and Facebook. You Talking to Me hops through the formal discipline of rhetoric, something that I’m not very familiar with at all but I enjoyed. Parliament Ltd is damning of many politicians and the whole parliamentary process. There is a lot to be cross about but, weirdly, I found Williams’ scathing tone about politicians slightly irritated me. It’s clear he has a very low opinion but I wasn’t always sure it was entirely fair to daub all politicians with this particular brush at all times.

Our Final Warning is a bleak read but not to be ducked. How to Survive a Plague is a fairly long book but uplifting despite the desperately long list of victims. One of the big players at the time of the HIV epidemic was none other than Anthony Fauci. He doesn’t always come out of it well. The NHS at 70 is rather short and somewhat superficial. The COVID-19 Catastrophe by Horton is brutally honest, again relatively brief, but packs a punch.

You Are Not Human was excellent and made me think deeply about metaphor and how we use it, unthinkingly, all the time. Humankind is very good as well and this book, plus Utopia for Realists, make Bregman one to keep close. The Art of Statistics does a manful job of tackling some complicated stats. It’s not my first rodeo when it comes to looking at these but my head was swimming at times. The Candy Machine is another book covering the horrors of the ‘War on Drugs’.

My favourite book this month was Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell. I picked it up because of a recommendation in Bregman’s book. For some reason, the life and works of Russell have passed me by. I could barely have told you who he was, much less anything about his books. It was wonderful to read these essays from a different period but be entertained and stimulated. And knowing there is much to read of Russell’s yet is always a lovely feeling — reminiscent of that thrill when you find an author you love and there is a long backlist to work through. I’m not certain I’ll be delving into all his past academic works but there are plenty of essay collections to enjoy.

May 2020 reading list

Here it is, the May reading list. It was a little bit impacted by COVID-19 as I did, just ever so slightly, lose my focus and I was finding it harder to concentrate. Some of these are, as a result, more varied and rather less academic.

  • Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
  • The Lost Decade by Polly Toynbee and David Walker
  • Stolen by Grace Blakely
  • Draft No.4 by John McPhee
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
  • Hypersanity by Neel Burton
  • The Secret Barrister by Anon
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
  • Detectives in the Shadows by Susanna Lee
  • Good Cop. Bad War by Neil Woods

Recommendation of the Month

I was looking foward to Proust and the Squid and I was disappointed. The second half of the book is heavily weighted towards people with a specific interest in autism and I was crushed by the level of detail. It didn’t work for me at all. The Lost Decade was good but a bit of a grind. It was also almost impossible not to read everything as if it was asterisked — any talk of economic and social impact now being looked through the COVID lens. Stolen was good, more strident and militant than I was expecting. Draft No.4 started slow but had some great advice about writing longer form work. Bad Blood was gripping, a page turner, and an astonishing indictment of the Silicon Valley startup culture.

A well-resourced criminal justice system is the absolute bedrock of a fair society and it is failing.

I liked Hypersanity but it was a little patchy. The Secret Barrister takes us through the abject running down of the criminal justice system in the past decade. I’m not quite sure why I picked up the Steve Jobs biography, possibly as a consequence of reading Bad Blood and the hero worship of Jobs by the main player, Elizabeth Holmes. Neither of them come out particularly well.

Jon Ronson’s book was diverting enough and it certainly encouraged me to stay off Twitter. Detectives in the Shadows is an academic discussion of the hard-boiled hero but very much has an American sensibility. And Good Cop, Bad War details Neil Woods’ experiences as an undercover cop.

As I write this, I realise that it wasn’t a superb month. Ultimately, if I had to pick a book to recommend then I think The Secret Barrister edges it over Stolen. You may never be involved with it, woe betide you if you are, because a well-resourced criminal justice system is the absolute bedrock of a fair society and it is failing. We spend a pitiful amount on it and the relentless drive for more savings is a deep wound in our democracy. Legal aid has been slashed and we’ve been suckered with the PR about the undeserving. Median income of barristers in 2012-13 was £27,000 — though, some do of course, earn large sums at the upper end, most don’t. Read the book, but if that’s too much for you then check out The Secret Barrister FAQs.°

April 2020 reading list

Here’s the April reading list. I’m catching up after a busy COVID-19 period so haven’t written about these individually.

  • Criminal by Tom Gash
  • The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham
  • I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan
  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton
  • Airhead by Emily Maitlis
  • Truth to Power by Jess Phillips
  • Pale Rider by Laura Spinney
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems by Mary Oliver
  • Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • Crippled by Frances Ryan
  • Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

Recommendation of the Month

I can still come up with a book of the month to recommend. Or at least I think I can. There are several very strong candidates on this list. Crippled by Frances Ryan is very powerful but it is very heavy on numbers — not usually a problem for me but I found myself just dizzy with it. It’s a book I will refer back to in the future but it’s not quite as readable as others. Spinney’s Pale Rider had been popping up repeatedly in Amazon’s recommendation algorithm and, given the pandemic, it seemed churlish to avoid it any longer. It is a little uncany reading it when one compares our current circumstances an experiences. The Rule of Law was more technical than I had expected and I can see why this is essential reading to those in the profession or closely related ones, but it felt less accessible than I had hoped. I thought Other Minds was tremendous, I listened to the audiobook and it was captivating. Poverty Safari has won multiple awards and plaudits for good reason and, like Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, will make you change how you think about you engage with discussions about their central topic — poverty and race. In the end, I’ll recommend Deaths of Despair because it is a lesser known book and I read it in hardback just a few days after its release. It is an unflinching summary of the so-called ‘deaths of despair’ in the USA.

March 2020 reading list

Better late that never, here’s the March reading list. Just in time for the end of April. It all coincided with full COVID-19 busy-ness so has had to wait a while. Here are the books for the past month:

Recommendation of the Month

Looking back this is not an easy choice for this month and there are some fine books here. Heimat is a graphic novel and not the kind of book I would have picked up, if it hadn’t been an Orwell Long List book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Both books by Bloodworth were excellent and I particullarly liked the short punchy nature of The Myth of Meritocracy. Last month I read Myers’ memoir of Northern Ireland Watching the Door and Say Nothing is the perfect companion — it’s easy to see how it won the Orwell Prize. I wasn’t sure I would like Permanent Record and I was completely won over by Snowden. A close runner up for my recommendation this month is The Line Becomes a River which tells of the experiences of Cantú, a border guard patrolling between Mexico and the USA. It is beguiling, haunting and humanises the struggles at the border. Rather wonderful.

However, if recommendations are based on how many times I actually tell people about a book then McGreal hits the spot in American Overdose. You can read the comments and quotes° I picked out. It’s obviously a cliché to suggest ‘all doctors should read this’ but it has been a very powerful stimulus for me while working in clinical settings of dependence and substance misuse. I’ll keep on recommending it to anyone within earshot who stands still long enough.

The Growth Delusion by David Pilling

This book is about GDP. Gross Domestic Product. It might not seem like the most auspicious of topics but Pilling pulls us along into a fascinating journey through economics, climate change, and happiness. GDP is a single number that has come to dominate our lives in a staggering way. It is the embodiment of the ‘economy’. Whatever that is. Pilling explores this and, near the end, describes this single number as “trying to squeeze a frog into a matchbox”. He reminds us that the economy is just an invention, it isn’t real in the sense of being tangible. It’s a relatively modern way of conceptualising some of the activities of our society.

He discusses alternatives to the GDP like the Genuine Progress Index° and the Happy Planet Index° (not widely used, he tells us, due to tendency for it to make world leaders laugh). He considers the environmental impacts of growth and how we might take them into account. He describes how two separate processes came up with the same number for the overall wealth of the world, somewhat spookily as he says, with the value of $33 trillion. He asks: should we be describing the planet’s resources in money terms at all, does it legitimise the destruction of deep time resources?

He gets into happiness and, so inevitably, discusses Bhutan and its Buddhist influenced approach. Parenthetically, they still don’t seem that happy on most measures but that might be because they are just so darn poor they still have to raise themselves up to that basic level.

There is one rather wonderful quote about growth: “Only in economics is endless growth seen as a good thing. In biology it is known as cancer.” This can stand along Greta Thunberg’s angry: “fairy tales of eternal growth” rebuke° to those that can’t spot the internal flaw of growth-orientated capitalism.

Pilling talks about the “deaths of despair” and I’m very aware of how much I see those in my routine clinical work — the deaths due to suicide, drug addiction, and chronic liver disease. It was economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton who first talked about this and I’ve ordered their new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism° that has only just been published. What strikes me is that this concept has, potentially, enormous power to change how people view these problems and might influence how we tackle them.

This book is in my Orwell Long List 2019 series of posts.°

A note

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

Email if you want to get in touch: euan@euanlawson.com

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January Debrief — The Political Doctor

My Debrief for the January 2020 issue is available on the BJGP website.° It was an odd one to write and it already feels like a long time ago. The lag with monthly publication always leaves me slightly disorientated when articles are published. I’m working ahead and, suddenly, something written many weeks in the past bobs back up. This one was particularly unusual as I wrote it in the feverish week before the general election and it was published a couple of weeks after.

I was determined to write something political but I didn’t want, with this particular article, to be overtly partisan. Not that I have a problem with that. I don’t think you’d have to dig too far back into my writings to determine where my loyalties lie but I figured the timing was critical here. I hesitate to invoke the imagery of a party to characterise the election campaign but further comment in the BJGP might have been about as welcome as being offered the previous night’s leftover cold kebab while nursing a brutal hangover. All that said, there has been an interesting reaction to it and it seems to have struck a note with a few people.

For those of the left-leaning persuasion, it’s tremendously easy to lurch into apathy, if not outright despair. Personally, I plan to find ways to dig in and get more involved. The responses I’ve had suggest I’m certainly not alone. Get in touch if you want to talk about it.

On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Bliss

This is a sensitive exploration of immunity and vaccines that occasionally digresses and certainly doesn’t follow the main thoroughfares of the scientific highways. It’s more like a version that takes the scenic road, meandering through the countryside, ending up at the same destination, but offering a very different experience for the traveller.

Reading the reviews on Amazon is an uncomfortable experience as it serves a very pointed reminder that the anti-vax sentiment is very much alive and kicking. One review stuck with me, suggesting that Bliss didn’t quote any papers or research, though the reviewer may well have been an anti-vaxxer who simply didn’t like Bliss’ viewpoint. Actually, I think On Immunity is very rich in scientific detail, it’s just wearing it in a very different style. Bliss couldn’t have written a book° like this without the depth of research she has done, it’s a rich vein amongst many other layers, not all of them familiar to those of us whose time is spent reading a certain type of dry academic article.

Here are just a selection of passages I highlighted:

“Having virtually invented a paid profession and being almost exclusively available to the rich, doctors were suspect to the working class.”

“When he taught me [Bliss’s father] to drive, he gave me this advice from his own father: you are responsible not just for the car you are driving, but also for the car ahead of you and the car behind you. Learning to drive all three cars was daunting, and inspired an occasional paralysis that plagues driving to this day.”

“As early as 1840, I learned, a doctor observed that vaccinating only part of a population against smallpox could arrest an epidemic in full.”

“The concept of a “risk group,” Susan Sontag writes, “revives the archaic idea of a tainted community that illness has judged.””

“Killing germs, rather than washing them away, reminded him of the Crusades, when an abbot who was asked how to tell the faithful from the heretics replied, “Kill them all—God will know his own.””

“But risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear.”

“Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares.”

“Intuitive toxicology is the term that Slovic uses for the way most people assess the risk of chemicals.”

“But most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.”

“But the use of natural as a synonym for good is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world.”

“But vaccines are of that liminal place between humans and nature—a mowed field, Berry might suggest, edged by woods. Vaccination is a kind of domestication of a wild thing, in that it involves our ability to harness a virus and break it like a horse, but its action depends on the natural response of the body to the effects of that once-wild thing.”

““Probably the worst thing that ever happened to malaria in poor nations,” Rosenberg writes, “was its eradication in rich ones.””

“It spelled “munity,” from the Latin munis for service or duty. “Munity is what you are really writing about,” a colleague would say to me.”

“The debate over vaccination tends to be described with what the philosopher of science Donna Haraway would call “troubling dualisms.” These dualisms pit science against nature, public against private, truth against imagination, self against other, thought against emotion, and man against woman.”

“That croup, the kind that was frequently fatal in a short time, was caused by diphtheria and has virtually disappeared in this country since the introduction of the diphtheria vaccine in the 1930s. My son had viral croup, once distinguished from diphtheria by the French with the term faux-croup. While diphtheria kills as many as 20 percent of the children who contract it, faux-croup is rarely fatal.”

“The wise practice of waiting and watching is hard to sell, in part because it looks a lot like doing nothing.”

“The purpose of heroic medicine was not so much to heal the patient as it was to produce some measurable, and ideally dramatic, effect for which the patient could be billed.”

“Childbed fever, as puerperal sepsis was called, was spread by doctors who did not wash their hands between exams. But doctors blamed it on tight petticoats, fretting, and bad morals.”

“Autonomy is usually imagined as the alternative to paternalism. But in what is sometimes called the “restaurant model” of medicine, the paternalism of doctors has been replaced by the consumerism of patients.”

“And the doctor, who was a father in the paternalistic model, is now a waiter.”

““Where there is trust, paternalism is unnecessary,” the philosopher Mark Sagoff writes. “Where there is no trust, it is unconscionable.” And so we are caught in a double bind.”

“measles has killed more children than any other disease in history”

“Until the results of a small study are duplicated by a larger study, they are little more than a suggestion for further research.”

“Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang

I’ve read a number of books about economics in the past year or so. They have, undeniably, been written by economists who would self-identify as left wing and who are, on various levels, putting forward arguments to refute neoliberalism.

In a recent Debrief column for the BJGP° I wrote that doctors did, often, regard themselves as being beyond politics. Economics has also tried to pull off this sleight of hand. Economic is no more apolitical than medicine. The notion that the free market is currently unrestricted in some pure form, outside the interference of politics, doesn’t stand up to any reasonable scrutiny. We don’t let industries pollute indiscriminately and we have abolished child labour – both are fundamentally political decisions, made by society, for the greater good and the boundaries of the free market are always set in one place or another.

I’ve read the Chang books slightly out of order and I’ve just read Bad Samaritans.° This one puts forward his myth-busting approach to economics, so well exemplified in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism° and puts it in the context of the developing nations which is Chang’s main interest. I find Chang to be lucid and compelling. We castigate developing countries who dare to suggest economic policies that we ourselves used to nurture our own infant industries°, and we strong-arm them into accepting a free market approach that will continue to enrich us more than anyone. It’s hard to shake a lurking outrage, if not shame, when our hypocrisy is so grimly exposed.

Strava update for 2019

Here, apropos of not all that much, are my Strava stats for 2019. I’m fairly diligent about recording all my activity on Strava and I find it a convenient way to monitor how much exercise I’m getting. I’m no longer indulging in the social media side of it at all. Over the past 5-6 years I’ve hit around 250-270 hours each year and that’s evenly spread over the months. I’m almost tediously regular. I rarely have single activities that are particularly long but I am super consistent. And, no matter how hectic life gets I can almost always get something in. Measuring it keeps me honest and if I have to have a lighter week or two, or I have a quiet month, I just try to lift it back again a little.

This works for me incredibly well. I don’t go through any binges of exercise and I simply have no prolonged periods without any exercise. I no longer have to go through that pain of trying to get back into running when I’ve laid off for a few months. Doing half as much, on a consistent basis, month upon month, is something most people could manage. It’s surprising how little will work if you can just keep doing it, week in week out, building the habit, accumulating the benefits.

Around 200 hours is running and most of the rest is made up of weight training. I’ve done a minsicule amount of cycling in the past year. That is, on reflection, the one thing I’d like to do more of in 2020. I do go up hills for most of my exercise and my elevation stats reflect that. However, I’d add that I don’t go up them very quickly. The main benefit is that it probably helps with my leg strength and I think it makes me less injury prone. I also get to enjoy a nice view…

December 2019 reading list

Here are the books I’ve got through in December 2019. There are certainly more than usual as there are several shorter volumes here. And, I had some leave as well so I hared through a few more then.

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.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron

This is only a short book but it is a harrowing tale of one man’s plunge into the abyss of depression. I picked it up via a comment in Christopher Hitchen’s autobiography. Styron spends quite a bit of time emphasising just how utterly inexpressible depression is as a disorder. How the language doesn’t exist and the words just don’t match up to the horror. Styron himself is quick to point out that an individual experience is just that, unique and idiosyncratic, but I’m certain there will be some deep resonances for many people in this slender volume.

I should add that the doctors don’t fare well yet Styron is admirably restrained, even generous, in his descriptions. Styron is right to highlight the complexity of predisposing factors and triggering events but the iatrogenesis of the benzo prescribing is very ugly and I blush to read of it. Some of the medical perspective is of its time as Styron’s depression, so starkly painted in Darkness Visible°, affected him in the 1980s. Much of it remains frighteningly pertinent.

Some selected quotes:

“The most honest authorities face up squarely to the fact that serious depression is not readily treatable.”

“Frighteningly, the layman-sufferer from major depression, taking a peek into some of the many books currently on the market, will find much in the way of theory and symptomatology and very little that legitimately suggests the possibility of quick rescue.”

“The intense and sometimes comically strident factionalism that exists in present-day psychiatry—the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology—resembles the medical quarrels of the eighteenth century (to bleed or not to bleed) and almost defines in itself the inexplicable nature of depression and the difficulty of its treatment.”

“This is to say more specifically that instead of pleasure—certainly instead of the pleasure I should be having in this sumptuous showcase of bright genius—I was feeling in my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain.”

“Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.”

“Bloody and bowed by the outrages of life, most human beings still stagger on down the road, unscathed by real depression. To discover why some people plunge into the downward spiral of depression, one must search beyond the manifest crisis—and then still fail to come up with anything beyond wise conjecture.”

“I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination.”

“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”

“I couldn’t rid my mind of the line of Baudelaire’s, dredged up from the distant past, that for several days had been skittering around at the edge of my consciousness: I couldn’t rid my mind of the line of Baudelaire’s, dredged up from the distant past, that for several days had been skittering around at the edge of my consciousness: “I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.””

“But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.”

“The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk.”

“Over two years before my siege, an insouciant doctor had prescribed Ativan as a bedtime aid, telling me airily that I could take it as casually as aspirin. The Physicians’ Desk Reference, the pharmacological bible, reveals that the medicine I had been ingesting was (a) three times the normally prescribed strength, (b) not advisable as a medication for more than a month or so, and (c) to be used with special caution by people of my age.”

“Then, after dinner, sitting in the living room, I experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can describe only as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible.”

“Much evidence has accumulated recently that indicts Halcion (whose chemical name is triazolam) as a causative factor in producing suicidal obsession and other aberrations of thought in susceptible individuals. Because of such reactions Halcion has been categorically banned in the Netherlands, and it should be at least more carefully monitored here.”

“While my own carelessness was at fault in ingesting such an overdose, I ascribe such carelessness to the bland assurance given me several years before, when I began to take Ativan at the behest of the breezy doctor who told me that I could, without harm, take as many of the pills as I wished.”

“More or less the same can be said for Art Therapy, which is organized infantilism.”

“It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and that they will pull through.”

“A tough job, this; calling “Chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough—and the support equally committed and passionate—the endangered one can nearly always be saved.”

“To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression, hence the frustrated sense of inadequacy found in the work of even the greatest artists.”

The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham

It may be approaching the centenary since its publication but this small hardback book from 1926 is a treat. One shouldn’t place aesthetics over content when it comes to a book but Bloomsbury have got the package just right. The woodcut style cover and the heft of the hardback amplify the wonderfully rebellious nature of the content. It is, quietly, subversive and if you are ever struck with a smouldering desire to get outdoors then Graham will rekindle your fire.

Here are selected quotes from The Gentle Art of Tramping°:

“The tramp is a friend of society; he is a seeker, he pays his way if he can. One includes in the category ‘tramp’ all true Bohemians, pilgrims, explorers afoot, walking tourists and the like. Tramping is a way of approach, to Nature, to your fellow man, to a nation, to a foreign nation, to beauty, to life itself. And it is an art, because you do not get into the spirit of it directly — you leave your back door and make for the distant hill. There is much to learn, there are illusions to be overcome. There are prejudices and habits to be shaken off.”

“From day to day you keep your log, your daybook of the soul, and you may think at first that is a mere record of travel and facts; but something else will be entering into it — poetry — the new poetry of your life, and it will be evident to a seeing eye that you are gradually becoming an artist in life.”

“Of all tramping the most delightful is in the mountains; the most trying is along great highways.

“Mountain walking is really much less tiring because: first of all, there is no dust, then there is more contrast and mental distraction, and last, not least, one’s feet hit the earth at varying angles, employing more muscles.”

“The freedom of speech and action and judgement it gives you will breed that boldness of bearing which, after all, is better than mere good manners.”

“The less you carry the more you will see, the less you spend the more your will experience.”

“The best companions are those who make you freest. They teach you the art of life by their readiness to accommodate themselves.”

“For tramping is the grammar of living. Few people learn the grammar — but it is worthwhile.”

On Tthe Trespassers’ Walk: “It takes you the most extraordinary way, and shows what an enormous amount of the face of the earth is kept away from the feet of ordinary humanity by the fact of ‘private property.’

“The world is large enough, or is only too small, as takes your fancy or speaks your experience. But blue sky by day and fretted vault of heaven by night gives you the foil of the infinite, making your petty exploit a brave adventure.”

“Life is a like a road; you hurry, and the end of it is grave.”

“Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son and Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day are of little value to us. We will not read in our baths, nor memorise French verbs while we fry. Or we will, if we like, but not upon the compulsion of filling time.”

“Tramping is straying from the obvious. Even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight. You learn that it is artificial, that originally it was not made for mere tramping. Roads were made for armies and then for slaves and labourers, and for ‘transport’. Few have been made for pleasure.

“After a long tramp it is nice to see a book which has been clothed with pencillings. It records in a way the spiritual life of the adventure, and will recall it to you when in later years you turn over the page again.”

“It is well to take a book that you do not quite understand, one that you have nibbled at but have found difficult.”

“So also man’s life. We think of it in length of years. But that in a way is an error. Life is not length of time, but breadth of human experience.”

“Self-expression is life.”

“A thought recorded, one that is your own, written down the day when it occurred, is a mental snapshot, and is at least as valuable at the photographs you may take on your journey.”

“Yesterday’s thought is worth considering again, if only as the stepping-stone of your dead self.”

“The personal diary, however, that daybook of the soul, is not meant for other gaze.”

“It is in description tht the keeper of a diary becomes artist. All description is art, and in describing an event, an action or a being, you enter to some extent into the joy of art.”

“You are more than the mere secretary of life, patiently taking down from dictation, more than life’s mere scribe; you become its singer, the expressor of the glory of it.”

“No farmer objects to your walking alongside his corn fields or across his pastures. It is people who enclose but do not farm who have most prejudice against strangers.”

“It will soon strike you when tramping that the word infinite does not always mean the same: there are grades in infinity and measures of the immeasurable.”

Understanding colour blindness

I was talking about colour blindness again today. As I said, it’s a topic that I’m prone to going off on. I’d been drafting some rough ideas and a few paragraphs for the book° on the train down to London and I had been thinking about how other people perceive colour blindness.

And, interestingly, this was the turn the conversation took. The two people I was speaking to are intelligent and perceptive yet it was just incredibly challenging for them to get a handle on what it’s like to be colour blind. I showed them the picture in the last blogpost — and, of course, they both saw the number and I was able to explain what I saw. Just a mess of red-brown-green blobs. (I almost feel like I need a new word for this kind of shade as to me, it’s just a single colour with varying shades.) I also pulled up one of the early chapter drafts, provisionally titled Everyday annoying shit and was able to point out some of the problems colour blindness can cause.

It would be good in the book to make it a guide for people to try to get a feel for how it is to be colour blind. Mostly, it doesn’t feel like anything of course but the world does just stump us in some funny little ways. With 1 in 12 men affected, there are very few people out there who don’t know others who are colour blind. One often sees, in any description of colour blindness, photographs that have been altered to take out red hues or green hues. Pictures of market stalls of fruit seem very popular for this. I’ve no idea if these work, they don’t for me, for obvious reasons, but they seem to lack a reality and an essential quality that tells you about the lived experience. If I can capture a little of that I’ll be happy.

Purple skies and pink elephants

I do love talking about colour blindness. You can’t be in conversation with me too long before I’ll raise the topic and I suspect most of my work colleagues know about it. They are very generous about making accommodations when we are in presentations, or standard setting sessions, or just looking at documents. Yet, it’s also apparent some of them don’t necessarily understand it particularly well.

I have written a couple of articles on Blokeology: there’s one on late presenting bladder cancer° and another on colour blind cricketers.° And in Episode 053 I spoke to Kathryn Albany-Ward who runs the Colour Blind Awareness website.° Over the early months of 2020 I’m going to turn my attentions to a short book on colour blindness. As well as covering some of the basic science I’m going to touch on some of the interesting wrinkles around this common condition. With 8% of men affected it’s not that niche. It’s much less common in women — just 0.5% of them are affected — but we all know plenty of people who are colour blind. It is another matter whether they know it themselves of course. Doubtless I will discuss that.

At the moment I’m just planning a slim volume. I have an outline and it may come in with as little as 20-25,000 words but I may digress and it could be more like 35-40,000. That would be satisfying as it will feel more like a complete, if trim, book. So, that’s the aim and I’m getting my 2020 plan in early. I’ll post updates, and perhaps some excerpts, in due course. The working title is, as you might have guessed, Purple Skies and Pink Elephants, though that’s likely to change. It stems from my direct experience: it’s a standing joke that I refuse to accept the existence of the colour purple and pinks look very grey to me. I always thought elephants were pink. I was shocked to find out that’s not true.

The image is an example of an Ishihara plate. My daughter tells me that she can see the number 74. I can’t see anything, it’s just a blend of dots with no discernible pattern at all. She tells me the numbers are in green and the surrounding dots are varying shades of dark red and browns. I look at it and I’m not honestly sure I know what colour most of the dots are at all. I think I can tell some of the light greens with confidence but after that I’m stumped. They could be dark green, red, brown, orange… who knows?

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.